February 20, 2014

Clooney's MONUMENTS MEN Might As Well Lay Down On The Tracks Before Frankenheimer's THE TRAIN

"You've gotta love a snappy nickname."
My friend Jeff has been a very big supporter of the site from day one.  He's given me a number of fantastic suggestions and been on hand for a bunch of screenings, including both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, neither of which I've written up yet because I'm an asshole.  As the release of George Clooney's newest film The Monuments Men grew near, Jeff mentioned that it seemed to bear a striking resemblance to an older film, John Frankenheimer's The Train starring Burt Lancaster.  "I watched it once when I was really sick," Jeff told me.  "I remember it being really good, but that might have just been a fever dream."  We resolved ourselves to give both films a look, and then do a bit of email correspondence in the days that followed...

When you and I finished watching The Train last week, we both remarked how it was a film that really stays with you and makes a big impact, particularly that ending. I think it's telling that your girlfriend Jess and I had the exact same reaction (independently) when we met up in the lobby after Monuments Men. "Well, that was a movie..."

I made this comparison to you the other night, but taken together these two films reminded me a lot of the different styles of celebrity/historical biopics. The popular inclination is to approach the story from a wide angle, covering as much of the subject's life as possible and thus making the film feel not unlike a kind of greatest hits collection. That's all well and good, but it often means that the details get short-changed in translation, turning supporting characters into broad types and specific incidents into mere sketches of events that mostly serve to flesh out the larger themes. (Think Ray.) That's why I tend to prefer biopics with a more limited scope, depicting only a brief period of time in the subject's life and usually limited to one specific struggle.  This approach tends to yield more compelling stories as well as more complex characters.  (Think Lincoln or My Week With Marilyn.)  In the simplest terms, that's the difference between George Clooney's Monuments Men as compared to John Frankenheimer's The Train; the former attempts to tackle events spanning multiple countries over many years of World War II, whereas the latter focuses only on one man's attempt to save a single train full of stolen art. It's little wonder that one movie is infinitely more effective than the other.

Let's start with Monuments Men. What's most striking about George Clooney's fifth go-round behind the camera is not what's in the film, but actually what's missing. First and foremost is any kind of consistent tone. Is it a comedy? A drama? A wartime adventure? I honestly have no idea. Halfway through the film, Jamie turned to me and, in her best Jeff Golblum voice, whispered, "At some point there is going to be some art or war in your war movie about art, yes?" She's totally right. We rarely get to spend any time appreciating any of the art these men are tasked with saving. Not that I'm asking for some kind of art history lecture to be shoehorned into the dialogue, but one of Clooney's central themes in the film is the examination of the true cultural value of these masterpieces and their worth compared to the cost of human life. So I would have liked to spend a little more time appreciating those paintings and statues, whether it's as the Nazis are shipping them all off to Germany or when the American GI's eventually recover them in the closing days of the war, and a little less time listening to George Clooney speechifying about them in the abstract. And if the art is essentially going to act as an unseen MacGuffin, as it does for most of The Train, then I expect to get some pretty decent military action as these guys brave life and limb to complete their mission. There's even a ticking-clock rivalry set up with the Russians, who are intent on bringing the art back to Moscow as trophies of war, but in the end there's no showdown, no payoff. It's all a narrative dead end. I'm shocked that we never even got a scene of Clooney arguing with a commander about not bombing a church or a bridge, or convincing someone to alter their strategy in order to defeat the opposing force with minimal collateral damage. That kind of seemed like the point of the movie, as it was sold to me by Columbia's marketing department. Nope. That concept gets only the briefest of lip service and instead we get a lot of Clooney getting driven around in a jeep while the other members wander from one shelled out city to the next and save very little art.

Speaking of the soldiers, I really can't tell you anything about any of them, including their names. There's a cute montage at the top where we see each of them working in their artistic fields, but their specific expertise remains hazy at best and never really came into play on the battlefield. Hugh Bonneville gets a very amorphous backstory with some kind of ill-defined tragedy that he must atone for while Bob Balaban's sole defining trait is that he's really eager to kill some Nazis, although that gets forgotten about almost immediately. Meanwhile Bill Murray might as well be named Bill Murray and John Goodman doesn't fare much better. I mean, it's fun to watch Murray and Balaban bicker across various battlefields, but it never really goes anywhere. Their scene with the young German soldier and the cigarettes is the perfect example of this problem - it's amusing because of Murray being Murray, but the moment it awkwardly and abruptly ends, you realize it served absolutely no purpose. There are a lot of scenes like this. I had high hopes in the beginning as Clooney and Damon assembled their team a la Ocean's Eleven, mostly because the chemistry between those two actors is simply undeniable at this point. So when Damon got sent off to France to charm Cate Blanchett for half the movie, I was even more depressed. You don't split up The Rat Pack.

What say you, Jeff? Did any of the characters make any kind of an impact on you? Am I right in thinking that Damon's storyline is clearly the weakest thing in the movie, or did Blanchett somehow manage to save it for you? I mentioned all the things Monuments Men was missing, but was there anything present in the film that really worked for you? And, aside from the drastic difference in the quality of closing scenes, how does The Train stack up?
I'm going to use your question about the Damon-Blanchett storyline as a jumping off point to consider what the film may have been trying to accomplish. In their last scene together Blanchett (or Claire Simone, according to IMDB--I, too, can't remember any of the characters' names) comes onto Damon after showing him a ledger she's been using to catalog stolen art. Damon is all aw-shucks bashful and ends up leaving after gently rebuffing Blanchett's advances. All through this scene, the devil on my shoulder was yelling, "Go for it, Matt Damon! Do it! It's Cate Blanchett, for God's sake! Your wife will forgive you on this one." But no, like a Jimmy Stewart character of yore, Damon takes his leave, his honor intact. 

This was when the film's ambitions began to crystallize for me. The secret about Monuments Men is that, despite the marketing, it’s less concerned with recapturing stolen art and far more interested in recapturing a sepia-toned nostalgia for a certain kind of war film circa the 1950s and 60s. Unlike the cynical war films of the 70s and beyond, the war films immediately after WWII were often about men (decent, upright American men) on a mission, usually behind enemy lines. The characters were instantly recognizable types. There was a mix of humor and action sequences. One or two of the characters (the ones we didn’t care about all that much to begin with) would die, but the team would ultimately emerge victorious. Cue the rousing score. 

Sound familiar? Everything about Monuments Men, from the way it deploys its leading actors’ charisma in place of character development, to its cheesy montages at the beginning and end of the film, to Alexandre Desplat’s weirdly jaunty score, speaks to a desire to craft a film that is resolutely old-fashioned. This is a film my grandpa would enjoy. And I don’t mean that as a dig, either against my grandpa or the film. But a lot of the time Monuments Men feels like a film that he might have taken my grandma to see on a date in the mid-fifties. 

On this level, Monuments Men succeeds. For the first half, at least, it held my attention. In the, like, two scenes they share, Clooney and Damon have palpable chemistry. Bill Murray steels every scene he’s in (there ought to be a class dedicated solely to the way Murray gives line-readings). There is a bit of suspense as the team tries to reclaim art from a mine with the damn Ruskies breathing down their necks. And there’s this odd scene between Clooney and a Nazi officer where Clooney smokes a cigarette and tells the officer what’s going to happen to him back in Germany that’s strangely compelling and seems to hint at a darker movie that what we got. 

But oh lord yes it has problems, and the one that grated most is how it simplifies the debate over whether a piece of art is worth a human life. Without any nuance Monuments Men comes down on the side of art. What a surprise. 

The Train, by comparison, asks the exact same question, but doesn’t provide such an easy and sanctimonious answer. Without totally giving away the end, the last scene of The Train is a near-silent montage of dead bodies sprawled next to crates of stolen art. A train’s engine stammers in the background, a haunting mechanical drumbeat. We cut from bodies to crates, bodies to crates. The beauty of the montage is in how it can equivocate, and this particular montage sets up a comparison between the men who died to save the art and the art itself (and I think it’s genius that we don’t actually see any of the art, because this way the question isn’t about saving particular art; it’s about all "Art"). Without words, the film puts the onus on the viewer to come up with their own answers. Is art worth more than life? Is life worth more than art? 

That the film manages to pose such an absorbing question through imagery alone makes it all the more powerful. I’m reminded of something Spielberg said in his Inside the Actors Studio interview (don’t you miss that toppling tower of notecards?). I can’t remember the question he was responding to but Spielberg talked about how you should be able to put a film on mute and still understand what’s going on. A film is moving imagery, after all. If those moving images don’t tell a story on their own, then on some level that film fails. The Train has the efficacy of a silent picture. Monuments Men may as well be the visual accompaniment to an art history lecture. 

But what about you, my friend? Am I right to characterize Monuments Men as old-fashioned, and if so, does that absolve any of its sins? And what did you think about The Train? It might be interesting to compare the films’ characters. We don’t know much about Burt Lancaster or any of the other characters in The Train, but, for me anyway, each one made more of an impression than just about any character in Monuments Men. Why is that?

"Now, this minute, you couldn't tell me why you did what you did."
You're totally right about Clooney's proclivity for old-timey charm.  If there's anyone that's best suited to take up the mantle of a modern day Cary Grant, it's Clooney.  The guy just exudes a smooth, timeless charm that echoes back to the dashing Hollywood stars of yesteryear.  The fact that that he's got serious talent both in front of and behind the camera is all the more impressive.  In fact, after directing five movies that are all about as different from each other as can possibly be, just about the only thing that they have in common is an infatuation with bygone eras.  (Except Ides Of March, but he's adapting someone else's play there.)  If Clooney had been born 50 years earlier, I think he probably would have felt right at home, which is also why it's subtly strange to see him in something futuristic like Gravity or Solaris.  Seeing Clooney in Brad Bird's upcoming Tomorrowland, which I believe merges a lot of styles from the 1950's and the future, will probably give me whiplash.

I was listening to Community creator Dan Harmon's podcast Harmontown this morning and he was talking about his own issues with Monuments Men.  Amidst his mad ramblings, he made the point that there is a slight classism issue at play here.  Essentially, it's only wealthy folks who give a shit about the fate of art in wartime.  The poor lower class schmucks are too busy getting shot at over a hill of dirt to worry about who gets to keep a bunch of paintings that the common G.I. will likely never see in person anyway.  Clooney presents the mission to save art as the lofty goal of cultured idealists, but that's a perspective that only comes from a place of privilege and relative comfort.  That's not to say that Clooney's unit skated through the war (although that's essentially true), but it wasn't until Germany was on the ropes and the Allies were poised to emerge victorious that the Americans even began to contemplate a mission of this sort.  

The Train presents the same scenario in very different terms.  The Nazi officers equate stolen art with a concrete dollar value as opposed to any intrinsic cultural value.  They see this trainload of paintings and sculptures as a sort of insurance policy, a potential goldmine for the flagging German war effort.  And instead of a group of noble American artists who swoop in to teach everyone a lesson about the importance of Picasso, we get Burt Lancaster as a gritty train engineer who's working as part of the French resistance.  The art involved means nothing to him and he'd just as soon blow the train to hell as jump through hoops to ensure its safety while still preventing it from reaching its destination.  His decision to save the art is instead born from the loyalty to the mentor who died to protect his country's heritage.  It creates a far more resonant emotional connection for the audience.

What's more, The Train is just far more engaging on every level.  In a lot of ways it feels less like a war movie and more like a grifter story.  Most of the plot involves a series of elaborate deceptions in order to defeat the Nazis without them actually realizing it, from the re-routing of trains, to the disguising of entire towns.  Lancaster has to outsmart the enemy at every turn and there's no time for him to pontificate upon the motivation of his actions.  Sidenote: I love that Lancaster is playing a Frenchman and yet he never speaks French and never attempts any kind of an accent.  I said this as we were watching it, but I have no problem buying into the conceit that, while a collection French nationals would certainly speak to each other in their native tongue, the actors are speaking English to accommodate American audiences.  I think it comes from all those years of watching Star Trek, in which the universal translators give us Klingons who speak English even to each other.

P.S. It's taking all my willpower not to title this article "Running THE TRAIN On Clooney's MONUMENTS MEN."

I have to slightly take issue with your characterization of how the Nazis feel about art in The Train. Lancaster’s main adversary is the Nazi colonel Waldheim, played wonderfully by Paul Scofield. You’re right to say that most of the other Nazis in the film could give a shit about the aesthetic value of the art they’re attempting to smuggle out of France. But Waldheim does care; that’s why we get that scene at the very beginning of the film where he and an art curator are appreciating the paintings in the Jeu de Paume museum. The scene goes on for a while, with quiet shots that linger over the paintings. Waldheim’s commitment to saving the art recurs throughout the film as he battles the Nazi bureaucracy who, not unlike some of the officers in Monuments Men, care far more about munitions than about crates of paintings by Matisse and Renoir. I think Waldheim absolutely understands the art’s financial utility, but he’s no mere pragmatist. Ironically, he would be on the side of the Monuments Men; he wants to save the art, no matter the human cost. Which is yet another thing The Train does so well; it not only gives Lancaster a formidable opponent, it puts the “liberal” pro-art perspective in the mouth of a Nazi, further ratcheting up the film’s commitment to looking beyond simple black and white morality. (And yet The Train was filmed in black white, a move that would have been only slightly less unusual in 1964 as it would be today. I assume it was primarily a financial decision, but the contrast between the film’s stark photography and the story's moral ambiguity is ingenious.)

There’s no one like Waldheim in Monuments Men, which is one of the reasons why I think the film’s characterizations pale in comparison to The Train. Without a clear antagonist, the characters of Monuments Men have nothing define themselves against. Of course the Nazis are the villains of the story, but none of them shares Waldheim’s convictions; they’re company men; all they care about is following orders and keeping the art away from the Allies, even if that means charring everything to a crisp, flamethrower-style. And because the Nazis are essentially faceless evildoers, Clooney lets both his characters and his story off the hook. There’s no tension, no menace—no doubt, in other words, that the Monuments Men will succeed in their mission. There’s also no outside perspective to challenge their principles, which is why the film feels so shallow and basic.

I feel kind of bad shitting on the movie like we have been; there are obviously far worse offenders out there. But given the talent and pedigree of those involved, Monuments Men feels like such a missed opportunity. Perhaps if Clooney had relegated himself to simply telling an old-fashioned-based-on-a-true-story-war-adventure, the movie might have been less disappointing. Monuments Men has ambitions, however; you can hear them each time Clooney starts to speechifying. The Train, by contrast, keeps its head down, goes to work, focuses on telling its story. And it’s a helluva story, punctuated by some of the most expertly composed action sequences put to film (the Allied bombing of a train yard is worth the price of admission alone). That it manages to remain fleet and exciting while posing some weighty questions is all the more impressive. Clearly, I think the world of this film. I wish it were better known. If nothing else, I hope more people become aware of its existence because of Monuments Men.

But this is your show, my friend, and you should have the last word. Thanks for letting share the spotlight this time.
You're totally right about Waldheim, and I actually love that scene at the Jeu de Paume as it perfectly sets the stakes for the rest of the film.  (I wish that Monuments Men had included a similar scene instead of dwelling solely upon the Ghent altarpiece and the Madonna statue.)  Waldheim may use the monetary value of the art as an excuse to get what he wants when dealing with superior officers, but he totally appreciates the art on its own merits.  That's reinforced in a big way during the film's closing moments as Waldheim attempts to commandeer a fleet of trucks and therefore strand a platoon of German troops just to ensure the safety of his prize, essentially Clooney's assertion that art is more valuable than life taken to the swastika-ed extreme.  But it's Scofield's short yet memorable exchange with Lancaster at the end that's really stayed with me.  Waldheim tells Labiche that the art will never be his because the train man cannot properly appreciate it.  The German sees himself as enlightened and therefore more entitled to the art than the Frenchman.  It's a more nuanced position of villainy than the Nazis in Monuments Men, who eventually choose to destroy the art rather than keep it for themselves.  There's little argument between protecting art and burning it, but the debate over whose museum it eventually resides in has a few more shades of grey.  Waldheim's love of the stolen art is legit, but Labiche's response to his air of superiority pretty well cements the idea that the crucial element at play isn't the Nazi's ability to appreciate the art but the fact that he simply has no right to take it.  Stealing is stealing.  

Monuments Men was originally slated for release this past December, meaning that Columbia was hoping the film would garner some serious awards buzz.  The fact that they pulled it late in the game and then quietly dropped it into theaters in mid-February, typically a dumping ground for movies the studios don't know what to do with, should have been a strong indicator that something had gone awry with the film itself.  What's most frustrating about Monuments Men isn't that it's bad, but simply that it's not excellent.  I'm always happy to spend two hours with the likes of Clooney, Damon, Murray, Goodman, Blanchett and Balaban, but if you put them all together then I expect nothing less than outright greatness.

This is gonna be one of those movies that our kids will stumble upon one day and say, "Look at the talent involved!  This movie must be awesome!"  Sadly, we'll be forced to shrug and reply, "You'd think so.  And yet..."

Thanks to Jeff for playing along and helping me to revisit an article format I wish I'd utilized more often.  This weekend I'll be watching Jaws.  (I know, I know...)  Jamie and Jeff are both huge fans, so I'm hoping that they'll both be able to join us for some podcasting action.  More guests!

Title: The Monuments Men
Director: George Clooney
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett, Bob Balaban, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville
Year Of Release: 2014
Viewing Method: Theatrical - Cinema Salem

Title: The Train
Director: John Frankenheimer
Starring: Burt Lancaster, Paul Scofield, Jeanne Moreau, Suzanne Flon, Michel Simon, Jacques Marin, Wolfgang Preiss
Year Of Release: 1965
Viewing Method: DVD

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