George Clooney’s ‘Monuments Men’ was smart to dodge the Oscar season

As Oscar’s phase one drew to a close and the nominations were set to be unveiled, the film press corps was getting its first look at one movie that dodged all of that commotion last year: George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men.” It’s set for release next week and with its arrival, one can only ask: was Sony smart to move it out of the season?

The easy answer is “yes.” This isn’t the awards film it might have been. But that’s not a value judgment or a criticism. Let me explain.

I was a little surprised by “The Monuments Men” in that it doesn’t take the bait of its own premise. It ended up steering clear of being an overtly plot-driven thing, which is unexpected given how meaty the story is. And indeed, I wasn’t alone. I spoke with the film’s cinematographer Phedon Papamichael about it at the recent Critics’ Choice Movie Awards ceremony – he’s nominated this year for Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska.” He told me there was a lot of that sort of stuff, plot-driven, active material that apparently didn’t make it into the final cut.

Reports at the time of the film’s move to 2014 indicated that Clooney was still trying to find the right tone and, according to the director and star, he “just didn’t have enough time.” Seeing the finished product now, and taking Papamichael’s comments into account, I can see that was the case. But getting out of the season had plenty to do with staying away from the kinds of expectations that build toward the end of a given year. “He thought he could just open it and say, ‘Hey, guys, this isn’t an awards movie,'” one person close to Clooney told me at the time. Alas, that time of year is a self-cannibalising mess, so I can’t imagine launching then unless you’re ready and willing to play that game.

Ultimately, the film ended up being much more character-driven and character-focused than I anticipated. It has a classical feel, each new scene or segment playing out like a little vignette, almost. Part of that is because the cast is scattered throughout, Matt Damon’s scenes mostly shared with Cate Blanchett in one European locale, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin’s in another, Bill Murray and Bob Balaban’s in another, etc. This leads to a lot of interesting little moments between the characters and the whole things has an easy feel to it. Murray and Balaban in particular have one such moment, quietly conveyed in the snow-blown periphery of the Battle of the Bulge, that I found touching and evidence of Clooney not taking the simple route with this film.

It would not have found much traction during the season, though. Particularly not with Sony tied up with “American Hustle” and “Captain Phillips” campaigns. It’s handsomely wrought, Papamichael’s work and that of the art and costume departments finely rendered. I suppose it could have found some purchase below the line. But it would have been a hard sell overall because, again, it simply doesn’t take the bait of its own premise. It doesn’t go for that obvious angle. And that’s frankly admirable.

“The Monuments Men” opens nationwide on Feb. 7.