Making Ocean's 14 - in 1944 Europe

Making Ocean's 14 - in 1944 Europe

Monuments MenEnglish (U/A) **Director: George ClooneyCast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett

If the Nazis were some of history’s greatest villains, they were also its most methodical plunderers of art and culture — it seems, as revealed in Robert M Edsel’s 2009 book The Monuments Men.

The book follows the 400-odd men and women of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) programme, a civilian-military unit tasked with recovering tens of thousands of art systematically looted by the Nazis and transported to Germany. The stuff of rousing story-telling? You better believe it, except this story falls flat in George Clooney’s limp adaptation of Edsel’s thought-provoking tale.  

The film starts in March 1943, with Belgian monks desperately dismantling Jan and Hubert van Eyck’s Ghent altarpiece, to hide from the Nazis. Their attempt proves futile and the altarpiece is seized and vanishes from public view. In Washington, DC, meantime, museum curator Frank Stokes (Clooney) attempts to convince US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the importance of saving Europe’s artistic treasures before they are stolen, or worse, destroyed. Art belongs to no one person, he says, and goes on to repeat, as though to give us the raison d’etre of why this film was made. 

What follows next is Clooney’s attempt to assemble a crack team of art experts and curators, a sort of 1940’s Ocean’s Eleven — a posse of art-hunters, an urbane “Dirty Dozen.” Among them is sculptor Walter Garfield (Goodman), the curator of the Met, James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art connoisseur Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and French art historian Claire Simone (Blanchett). 

The movie can be best described as a military comedy-drama — a vaudevillian show of the Men who Stare at Goats variety, except that its flippant treatment of a grave subject leaves its humour less than appropriate and its drama, less than engrossing. Worse, many of the actors are simply playing themselves. George Clooney is his typical cultured, ivy-league self, affable but distant, cavalier but serious. Cate Blanchett as Simone is really Cate Blanchett in costume with a lazy French accent; Matt Damon is the older brother of Private Ryan, and Bill Murray is the elderly, hangdog vision of the mischievous Private John Winger from Stripes (1981).

The story gets started when Stokes’ group of seven (including a generic Frenchman and an Englishman, best described as that “guy” from The Actor (2011) and what-his-name from Downtown Abbey), land at “Omaha Beach” in Normandy. But before war aficionados can get their blood up, this is a film nearly devoid of the pyrotechnics of warfare, and more akin to Art Appreciation 101 via Clooney’s well-meaning, but hokey sentimentality.The film quickly jumps to the Battle of the Bulge and then from there, to the end of the war. 

If you get the sense that this film is choppy — it is. But it also has a maddening tendency to drain drama and reduce moments of historical significance. When Granger is told by an insouciant American sergeant that the most devastating European war in history has ended, he retorts, with barely a piqued eyebrow: “Huh. No kidding.”Avoid this turkey and read the book instead.

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