At last year’s Academy Awards ceremony, Ben Affleck’s Argo took home “Best Picture”. The film was widely entertaining but had historians and certain former members of government crying foul. I know: a major Hollywood movie not being completely factual – blows my mind too. Anyway, there is a point to keeping historically based movies somewhat similar to the actual events. However, when Affleck defended his film, Argo and the changes he made, one message was obvious: it was his first job to make the movie good. It won “Best Picture” so… Mission Accomplished!
Fast-forward to the present day and George Clooney‘s film, The Monuments Men. Like Argo, Monuments Men is inspired by actual historical events. This film centers on the end of World War II when the Allied Forces (namely the United States of America) sent in art experts to try and save historically famous pieces from the hands of the Nazis. Wow, there really is no better villain than the Nazis: not only were they a genocidal death force but even the paintings weren’t safe. Seriously, is there any area of life where these guys weren’t villainous?
So, in terms of storytelling; there is the fish-out-of-water protagonist(s) – Clooney and his men – entering World War II Europe (great setting) to recover priceless pieces of art in the name of safeguarding both history and culture. That is a great setup. The comedy, the moral questions, the championing of art as a vital piece of mankind to be saved. Problem is: The Monuments Men is not that story.
There is great strength in documentary-style storytelling. Experts and eye-witnesses reconstruct events while adding important evidence and insights. This style provides an excellent vehicle to attain the general knowledge of a topic. The Monuments Men is not set up like a documentary. Instead the film plays like flashes-from-life. There is no flow, no constructed story structure of any kind. Scenes simply happen, some humorous, some inspiring, some very tragic. But they all just happen.
The result is there is no way for the audience to easily connect. The film follows nine individuals (Clooney’s team, French Cate Blanchett and a US-German interpreter). That’s a big central cast. Don’t worry: they’re split up most of the film and they’re so interchangeable that it doesn’t really matter. Even George Clooney and Matt Damon disappear for significant stretches so the film never feels like it has any one character to follow. There is a reason why I’m not naming any of the actors in this movie by their character names: there really weren’t any characters.
What is on screen feels accurate to history (I have yet to extensively fact-check the movie so I cannot say for certain). Everything in this film is akin to a World War II highlight real. There’s the shots of the Nazis being evil, the shots of the Russians being antagonistic (but not so much so that they were not part of the Allied Forces), the shots of Europeans resisting Nazi rule, and the shots of men dying for a cause they believe to be greater than themselves.
Ben Affleck’s point now is made valid by this movie. As an audience member, I feel like I learned more about the world, history and human nature from Argo (fictitious attributes aside) than I did from The Monuments Men. Next time George Clooney directs a movie, he had better remember that he is a storyteller first and a historian second.