About ten years ago Hollywood made an adaptation of Enemy at the Gates, a grand survey of the Battle of Stalingrad. Sensibly they decided that no one movie could possibly do justice to the epic meat grinder of Stalingrad, so they picked one anecdote which takes up only a few pages in the book, and made that the centre of the movie, with the hell of Stalingrad reduced to an appalling background (and an astonishing big budget opening scene). In an inspired move, they hired Bob Hoskins to play Khrushchev, which couldn’t quite make up for casting Jude Law as the hero of the piece, but at least it meant that whenever we cut away to the politics, there was something to look forward to.
What George Clooney needed, and didn’t have, was that same insight. The Monuments Men has a cast to kill for, and doesn’t give any of them enough to do. If only George Clooney had fewer friends, he might have been forced to make the movie focus on one or two characters and a single compelling story; instead it bumbles around the edges of the end of WWII, trying desperately to inject some sense of hazard and urgency to the quest to find and preserve thousands of artworks stolen by the Nazis. The terrible thing is that the moments of wannabe high drama lack any punch; the best bits are the low key moments of character comedy. The movie’s best moment is arguably when Clooney’s team trips over one of the masterminds behind the organised looting; it’s not so much the slow build to his unmasking, but the brisk double take as the camera pans across his face and the audience realises well before the cast that a villain is in their midst.
It was almost too easy to think up ways to make a better movie. As always, leaving out Matt Damon would have been a good idea; as I’ve said before, Matt Damon can’t actually play heroes; he’s at his best playing unreadable deadly ciphers; it’s no accident that his best work has been as Ripley and Bourne, damaged little freaks who could kill you or buy you lunch and not really know what the difference was. Hiring Jack Pulman as writer, except that he’s dead; a Private Schultz vibe would have been perfect for the tone that Clooney was aiming for.
Other odds and ends; I appreciate that there are NO French actresses with any real talent, but hiring an Australian to play your French art expert seems perverse (even more perversely, they hired a dialect coach for Jean Dujardin, a Frenchman playing a Frenchman). The team’s German interpreter had an impressive Cherman accent, but the actor playing him turned out to be Greek, puzzlingly enough. It’s not like George Clooney (on whose head all this lies) isn’t a smooth cosmopolitan guy with lots of European friends. I suppose no matter how smooth you are, you still wind up doing what $70 million worth of money men tell you to do. And someone needs to retire the hoary old tradition of 1940s death by powerpoint; the movie both starts and ends with Clooney talking over a slide show for the President of the USA.
Things that were dumb for no real reason; the standout is Matt Damon’s slow progress from Deauville to Paris, which suddenly speeds up when he gets a lift in an aeroplane. It wasn’t clear to me why the plane couldn’t just fly to where he was, instead of him needing to walk to it, but I was slightly distracted from being annoyed about that when I noticed that in defiance of all logic, the plan had a UK civil registration number all over the top of its wing. I spent the next five minutes of the movie trying to think of a plausible way for that to have happened, but it’s not like it distracted me from anything important.
All in all, it’s a genial low stakes ramble around Europe, with Clooney and crew desperately trying to persuade the audience that preserving art works is somehow worth getting killed for (tellingly, the only people who get killed are the non-Americans). And it’s charming enough - isn’t Clooney always charming enough? - that it wasn’t till this evening on my way home that I started to feel cranky about it. Clooney pushes the line all the way through that you have to preserve art so as to preserve culture and the sense of identity for entire peoples. And it suddenly hit me that this is tosh. Entire peoples couldn’t give a wet sock about the art Clooney and company were trying to save. It has almost nothing to do with national identity. Most of it was commissioned by elites, whether the church, the aristocracy or trading magnates, and it had as much to do with real national culture as the educated habit of speaking Latin had to do with the daily lives of medieval peasants. It was an elite expression of a shared elite cultural norm, and by the time that the Monuments Men were trying to save it, it belonged in museums or the mansions of wealthy private collectors - most of the stuff that they recovered was from the latter group.
And to my astonishment, I found myself getting annoyed with George Clooney, of all people; with his assumption that the things which mattered to the people he knows are the things which ought to matter to everyone.