The true story of how a team of artists and art historians fought to keep the Nazis from looting or destroying priceless works of art in the closing days of World War II makes for a compelling yarn in Robert M. Edsel’s book The Monuments Men. The frustrating thing about George Clooney’s movie version is that you can easily imagine the better film that he was trying to make, a throwback to old-fashioned “let’s work together and beat the Germans” yarns like The Guns of Navarone and The Great Escape, only with a fine-arts angle. Sadly, his effort emerges as a well-intentioned exercise in overreach.
Some of the most incredible incidents here, like the heroes learning key information from a chatty dentist, are taken from history. However, these characters are mostly fictional, and the real Monuments Men were hundreds of people instead of a handful of guys. After a prologue, the movie picks up in 1943 as Lt. Frank Stokes (played by Clooney) makes a personal pitch to President Franklin Roosevelt to assemble a team to preserve the masterworks of European culture from the Nazis and return stolen art to its rightful owners. As the war winds down, Stokes and his men head into the combat zone to complete their mission.
At 118 minutes, the film feels hacked down inexpertly from something much longer. We’re not properly introduced to these men before they’re split up and flung to the far corners of France, Belgium, and Germany to pursue different leads. A French-speaking artist (Matt Damon) goes to Paris to get an SS collaborator (Cate Blanchett) to reveal what she knows about the art’s location, while sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman) and French resistance artist Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) move as close to the front lines as possible. With events spread out over several years, characters keep disappearing for long stretches while the film tracks the movements of American, British, German, and Soviet military forces. The sprawling canvas here defeats the director.
On top of that, he loses control of the tone. Clooney is trying for a larky World War II movie with undercurrents of seriousness and danger, but the funny moments fall flat despite the presences of comic actors like Goodman and Bill Murray. Meanwhile, the reverent speeches about the importance of art too often come off as sanctimonious, and when members of the Monuments Men lose their lives, we’re not affected because we never got to know these guys well in the first place. The only time this movie strikes the right balance is when Walter and Jean-Claude start taking sniper fire in front of a church. As two guys who’ve never shot anyone bicker over which of them will take out the shooter, the scene is laced with a mix of comedy and dread that the rest of this amorphous historical epic could have used.
The Monuments Men
Starring George Clooney, Matt Damon, and Cate Blanchett. Directed by George Clooney. Written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, based on Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter’s book. Rated PG-13.