Near the end of World War II, President Roosevelt commissioned a few middle-aged artists, sculptors and architects to go behind enemy lines on a special mission: to rescue the great artworks of Western civilization, which had been illegally taken by the Nazis from museums and, in some cases, private owners, many of whom were Jewish. Much of the collection was to go into Hitler’s envisioned museum, some into private homes, and some works—Ernst, Picasso—were simply destroyed. Leading the unusual task force was Frank Stokes, who, as played by George Clooney in The Monuments Men, was the kind of self-deprecating guy we’ve come to associate with Clooney roles, but he’s also intently serious on the subject of art’s meaning in a civilized world. This is a good thing, to be sure, but it becomes a bit of a groaner as Stokes delivers ponderous monologues to his men about art’s meaning in a civilized world.
In this movie, which Clooney also directed, this also means that the bullets pretty much stop flying whenever Frank is pontificating. The real-life story of the Monuments Men is incredible, a stunning combination of bravery, skullduggery, suspense and sheer luck. As such, it’s hard to believe that the movie itself is rather lifeless. One wants to scream at the screen: You’re in the midst of the Battle of the Bulge! The Russians are coming, hell-bent to take as much art as possible for war reparations! Guys, do something!
The movie is at its best in the interplay between the members of the team, particularly Campbell (Bill Murray) and Savitz (Bob Balaban), who trade barbs and insults with all the aplomb of an old married couple. There is the unlikely partnership between the Gleason-esque Garfield (John Goodman) and the suave Frenchman Jean Claude (Jean Dujardin). There is the witty repartee between Stokes and Granger (Matt Damon), whose attempts to gain information from a suspicious Parisian museum curator (Cate Blanchett, channeling Joan Fontaine by way of spinster stereotypes) are grounded mostly in his butchering of her native language. It’s a movie in which you can pretty much bet money on who’s going to make it out alive.
It’s also a movie that can’t seem to decide whether it’s a war movie masquerading as a suspense story or a caper that happens to take place against the backdrop of war. Not since Spielberg’s Lincoln have I so wanted to rip out the soundtrack and have done with it, so insidious and insulting is it, what with it’s encroachment into each and every scene, like a ball-peen hammer, to remind us dimwits in the audience how we’re supposed to react.
As the final credits roll, The Monuments Men shows us actual black-and-white photos of the real men behind the recovery of such significant works of art as Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges. The pictures are compelling, but show also that Clooney pretty much used them to re-create every scene like the Victorians used to play tableaux. The men who risked their lives to restore great art not just to their original owners, but to the people, deserve a better, less stilted, retelling.