It's got a fascinating story! And a stellar cast! So it's rather amazing that this film is not just bad, but godawful. You have some of the most interesting characters of the 20th century, and we barely learn a thing about them. They are saving artworks, but we never learn what the art means to them. Nor can we ever tell what they're doing. Each scene is stillborn, and the film is dead by fifteen minutes in. It's really some kind of achievement to take this story and that cast and deliver a film so lifeless.
I saw this trailer way last year, and I thought it looked pretty good. It has a great cast and an interesting topic. Then it was delayed, and I read an article that Clooney was having trouble determining the tone of the film, and read another article that they were having trouble knowing what tone in which to pitch the trailer. Then the poor reviews coming in, and, like you, perhaps, I thought "Well, with that cast and this fascinating topic [and Clooney with a stache and aviator glasses], how bad could it really be?"
The answer is: unimaginably awful. Kind of unbelievably awful, in fact, because seriously, the mess this movie ended up as really takes some kind of work. I'd love to know what the process was that ended up in this script, and this edit, because really, it takes some kind of special effort to take a subject like this and a cast like that and end up with something as godawful as this turned out to be.
We open with people disassembling and packing up the Ghent Altarpiece, by Van Eyck. Then we meet Cate Blanchett as a woman working with a Nazi superior, and she spits in his champagne glass. It was halfway through the movie before I realized that she's supposed to be French, not German. Then we suddenly spend a long, wordless minute looking around this model of a city, finally coming to rest on the big new art museum, and have a shot of the model with Hitler standing in the corner. Okay, so three completely disconnected scenes, united only by the overbearing score, and the one of the model leaving you with long periods of "What am I looking at here? Why am I looking at this?" Then we cut to Clooney as a professor, who gives a big exposition about how the Nazis are looting all the artworks, and are going to open a big museum with them when they're done. He gets permission to assemble a team to rescue the art. They assemble, with short intros. And before you know it, they're all in Europe, bantering here, getting chewed out by an Army guy there, splitting into teams...
And by fifteen minutes in, the movie is a clunker. It makes you realize how, in most movies, each scene makes a little contribution, and they all add up to push a film forward. Here, none of the individual scenes work. They come on, dialogue is exchanged, and they're fading out before you feel like anything has happened. Some scenes require some historical knowledge to even get [only because I'd read a Hitler bio did I know what that model was], some have something emotional happening that we don't understand [Blanchett is screaming something at a Nazi on a train, he shoots at her], that is followed by a scene that has nothing happens and deadens whatever interest was created by the previous one. The team is assembled and deployed with barely any fanfare, and they're in Europe before we feel there has been any formal start to the mission. From there, it's not long before the noble speeches start, and the overbearing score continues, as though to say "See? The movie's not so bad! Listen to the score... La, la, la--pretty, no?"
At this point my question was: "Did they HAVE a script?" Things continue for a while, nothing adding up, nothing generating any interest, with significant dialogue exchanges such as Damon looking at a bunch of stuff and asking "What is all this?" and Blanchett responding: "People's lives," just dropped into the middle of the thing, no build-up or shape. Let me say while I'm thinking of it that Blanchett is absolutely terriffic in her ill-defined role. Then you start to realize that maybe they couldn't decide what kind of movie to make: one scene is wounded soldier drama, one is Army buddy comedy, one is how their platoon is a family, one is how moved they are by the art, one is shock at the Jews' loss... it becomes a compilation of scenes from other war movies, and... maybe it's the common writing mistake of thinking that a bunch of scenes that worked in other movies would, if assembled, make the greatest movie ever? I will say that, on a visual level, it all looks excellent.
But there was a moment, maybe an hour in, where I realized that I had no interest in watching the rest of the movie. Then I became a little angry when there is a moment, ONE moment of emotional involvement, when one of the characters gets shot, and before the scene is even over--we have Clooney talking in voice-over, killing all interest and momentum! It was that moment when I realized that the movie is completely and utterly out of control, and it wasn't long until I had written in my notes "I am beginning to want to scream," because... well, you know when something is so boring you start having the urge to scream just to make something happen?
By the way, these people are supposed to be some of the most intelligent, interesting people of the early 20th century, who went on to found or contribute to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard's Fogg Museum and the New York City Ballet, and gosh--you'd think they'd have something intelligent to say to one another! All they do is have goofy adventures, maybe a few close scrapes, but they never talk about art, what art moves them, what they think about all this, what they think about being intellectuals in a war zone, what they think about cultural loss... They are introduced as "the painter," "the sculptor," etc., and that really is virtually all we get to know about them, bad enough for any movie, but especially bad when the real people were such fascinating luminaries.
The mind just reels with ways to make this movie better, or what one would do if one had THIS movie to make. Let us get to know the guys better. Let us know what their art means to them. Have an official start to the mission. Give us a sense of what they're doing. Have two of them have a fight about a piece of art or art form. Have a few setbacks. Have one of them get emotional over a piece of art. Have them save some art. Have them have an emotional reaction to saving that art. Have one of them die, but have it actually mean something. Actually explain where they're going and where the enemy is going, and why they're doing what they're doing. Have them save some major pieces, and then, finally, let us SEE some of the pieces they saved, so we can understand what they accomplished.
The movie does let us see a few of the saved artworks at the end--but like everything that starts to work, it retreats from it in terror the next second. It's as if it's afraid to go too much in any direction, and as such ends up doing nothing at all. I'd really love to know how it ended up like this, especially because, really, you have to make special effort to fuck a movie like this up. I would recommend this for screenwriting classes as an example of the DNA of each scene NOT adding up, killing off the overall film in the process. Everyone else should stay away.
All aspiring screenwriters should see this.