Directors are quick to note that films can be found in the editing room. As I’m reading through Ray Carney’s Cassavetes on Cassavetes, John Cassavetes discusses the process in which his debut film Shadows was pieced together from roughly 60,000 feet of stock footage. The struggle to find a film within the editing room is something worth considering as the multiple stages of filmmaking can cloud even the sunniest visions. From an idea’s genesis comes the writing process, where thoughts are expanded and homogenized. What follows are the glaring financial issues associated with a production. There’s casting and the subsequent retooling of what’s on paper. Words and sentences and scenes are restructured to befit the mood and tempo of its talent. Shooting wraps up and the daunting task of sifting through footage to construct a film begins. With George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, the ideas were in place, along with exceptional talent both in-front and behind the camera. But the faults stem from the hodgepodge construction of the picture, where the film struggles to define fundamentals like tone and pacing, let alone thematic intent.
The Monuments Men defines its premise clearly, where Frank Stokes (George Clooney) assembles a team of entrepreneurs and experts to salvage important art from a weakening Nazi Germany. It’s the remainder of the film that flounders in a series of muddled vignettes. The most grating of problems that Clooney encounters is an inability to achieve a tonal balance. Scenes move from the romantic (Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett’s portions) to the absent-mindedly comic (Bill Murray and Bob Balaban) without a clear sense of direction. Clooney provides a voiceover narration throughout a good portion of the picture, though much of it registers as speechifying and reiterating the same point ad nauseum. It’s the tool that Clooney attempts to use to unite the pictures flimsy structure, but it fails to address how wildly off-kilter much of the film happens to be. While The Monuments Men works in its bits and pieces - all these vignettes have the potential to be expounded upon as full-fledged films - the structure is a disservice to virtually everyone involved.
While a film like Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11 has been used as a reference point to describe The Monuments Men, it’s an awfully superficial comparison. The better and more apt comparison point comes in the form of Robert Altman’s MASH. Both MASH and The Monuments Men clearly attempt to draw upon a broader spectrum of emotions - comic, romantic, and dramatic - while entrenched in their wartime settings. But what plagues The Monuments Men is a sense of self-importance and an overwrought slog of a narrative that makes what should have been a lighter affair feel all too artificial and slight. MASH achieved tonal resonance through its naturalism and refusal to get bogged down in preachy social pandering. The pieces of a MASH-type film are there in The Monuments Men. The right footage would simply need to be assembled.