I root for George Clooney. He has a lot going for him; he’s good looking, has a villa in Italy and is good friends with Sandra Bullock. That’s a lot for anyone, but that’s not why I root for him. I’m on his side because even though he’s a superstar he takes chances.
As an actor he put nipples on Batman, starred in a remake of an obscure Russian sci fi film, played a fox in a Wes Anderson movie and has played the lead in a movie about paranormal goats.
As a director he’s just as edgy. He’s stood behind the camera for a black and white look at Edward R. Murrow’s battle with Senator Joseph McCarthy, an old school football movie set in 1925 and an exposé of backroom politics.
He’s an a-lister who takes chances, and I applaud that which makes me sad to report I didn’t find as much to applaud in his most recent film as actor and director “The Monuments Men.”
Based on the book “The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History” by Robert M. Edsel, the movie stars Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville as a motley crew of art historians, engineers and museum directors recruited to locate and rescue priceless art works stolen by the Nazis. When two members of their team are killed they are no longer observers but active participants in the war.
Helping in the mission to return the plundered cultural artifacts is Rose Valland (Cate Blanchett), a French art historian and member of the French Resistance who not only aids the Allied art platoon but also tries to work her Parisian charms on Damon’s character.
“The Monuments Men” is a wartime comedy. Think “Hogan’s Heroes” by way of Leonardo Da Vinci and you’ll get the idea. It has some mild laughs (the biggest laugh, for Canadians anyway, comes from the Parisians who blame Matt Damon’s terrible French on having spent too much time in Montreal) but also a great deal of reverence for the art and the work of the real-life Monuments Men. ”People can come back but if you destroy their achievements, their history,” says George L. Stout (Clooney), “they can’t come back from that. That’s why Monuments Men was created.”
The reverential tone is reinforced by old school pacing that focuses on the character and art over action and a rousing soundtrack that sounds air-lifted in from a classic wartime era movie. The cast is uniformly fine and Bill Murray shows, once again in a brief scene in a shower (NO SPOILERS HERE), how his understated style can move an audience.
No problems there, but co-writers Clooney and longtime collaborator Grant Heslov appear to have taken a dose of sentimentality pills before putting pen to paper. What might have been an edgy, exciting look at an underreported slice of World War II history is reduced to an elegantly directed but somewhat dull film.
“The Monuments Men” is an earnestly told story but the lack of any real energy or surprises undermines its effectiveness.
During the most recent Oscars Jon Stewart’s joked, “Two of the movies nominated for this year’s Best Picture are about journalists in a relentless pursuit of the truth… and of course they’re both period pieces.” The films he was referring to were Capote and Good Night, and Good Luck, the latter of which is out on DVD this week in a beautiful black and white transfer.
The story of famed television journalist Edward R. Murrow and his on-air battle with Communist baiting Senator Joe McCarthy which led to McCarthy’s downfall isn’t a biography of either man but a narrowly focused story about the power of television of do good and the rights of the state verses person freedom. Shot through a haze of cigarette smoke this quietly affecting story feels so intimate because of co-writer and director George Clooney’s use of extreme close-ups and the choice to set 99 percent of the film in the smoke clouded CBS television studios in New York. This intimacy slowly turns to paranoia as the film takes on a claustrophobic feel that heightens the paranoia felt by Murrow who feels he is not being supported by the upper CBS brass and McCarthy who sees Communists around every corner.
This fifty-year old story feels amazingly fresh and relevant for today particularly in regard to its views on civil liberties and the existence of an acute socio-political chasm in the United States. Clooney, however, famous for his liberal politics, allows his characters to do the talking, but doesn’t preach. When Murrow says “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason,” it is completely organic to the story and not necessarily a comment on more recent concerns like the Patriot Act. Clooney does what great directors do, he simply tells the story in a very straightforward way and allows the viewer to draw his or her own conclusions.
Good Night, and Good Luck is good entertainment, well acted by David Strathairn and a solid ensemble cast, but, more importantly is also a cautionary tale. Clooney is subtly reminding us that those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it, or as Bob Marley said, “if you don’t know your past, you don’t know your future.”
Glory Road: 3 Stars. There are certain clichés that people have come to expect from sports movies; the tense final game which usually goes into overtime and the winner and loser are separated by only one or two points; a gruff but caring coach; the misfit team members. Glory Road features all those and more. Very loosely based on the true story of Texas Western coach Don Haskins, who in 1966, led the first all African-American starting line-up for a college basketball team to an NCAA national championship. It’s a good story and an interesting way to present a story about race relations in 1960s America, but filmmaker James Gartner, under the watchful eye of producer Jerry Bruckheimer, adds too much material to this paint-by-numbers script that is geared to manipulate the audience into feeling inspired. That being said, the basketball sequences are good, and Desperate Housewives fans will get a chance to see Mehcad Brooks in a solid supporting role.
There are no second chances or do-overs in live television. Just ask the cast of the Armchair Theatre play Underground who had to continue performing even though the star of the show, Gareth Jones, died during the live broadcast. The show, as they say, must go on whether your star drops dead, you have a wardrobe malfunction, or, as we see in this weekend’s Morning Glory, your co-hosts can’t stand one another.
The unpredictability of live television is exciting, so it’s not surprising that movies about TV have been around almost since the boob tube’s beginnings.
Just nine years after regular commercial network television programming began in the U.S. A Face in the Crowd, Andy Griffith’s 1957 film debut, showed the dangers of live television. The future Andy of Mayberry played Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a charismatic television star whose career falls apart when an open microphone picks up a rant about his viewers—he calls them “idiots, morons, and guinea pigs”—during a live show.
That rant ruined Lonesome’s career but in Network the immediacy of a live tirade was used to much different effect. Peter Finch plays longtime news anchor Howard Beale who reignites his career with a series of angry diatribes and the catchphrase, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” The motto struck a chord with people and has since been referenced by everyone from Bill O’Reilly in his book Who’s Looking Out for You? to Samuel L. Jackson, who, in the television movie Un-broke encourages people to yell, “I’m broke as Hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”
A very different slogan, inspired by the amiable goodbye Edward R. Murrow used to sign-off his broadcasts, served as the title of Good Night and Good and Good Luck. The story of Murrow’s battles against McCarthyism showed the power of early television, allowing Murrow to expose Communist hunter Joe McCarthy for what he was—a fear monger—live on air. “We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason,” he said.
Perhaps the best movie about live television is My Favorite Year, a fictionalized account of Errol Flynn’s appearance on the variety program Your Show of Shows. It’s a frenzied and very funny account that breathes new life into the saying “the show must go on.” Best line? “I’m not an actor, I’m a movie star!”