|‘The Monuments Men’
Something less than monumental, “The Monuments Men” wears its noble purpose on its sleeve when either greater grit or more irreverence could have spun the same tale to modern audiences with more punch and no loss of import. Agreeably patterned after classic World War II films in which a small unit of guys trumps the enemy’s best-laid plans, George Clooney’s fifth big-screen directorial outing is a sympathetic account of the urgent U.S.-led effort to save treasure troves of looted artwork hidden by Nazis, who are bent on destroying them as they retreat in defeat.
To be sure, it’s a fascinating story, one touched upon in a central way only once before in a major Hollywood movie, John Frankenheimer’s sensationally good “The Train,” starring Burt Lancaster and Paul Scofield, in 1964. Whereas that was a breathless thriller, “The Monuments Men” is more of a procedural in which a band of middle-aged scholars, led by art historian Frank Stokes (George Clooney) receive the blessing of FDR himself to enter the war zones of Europe to do what they can to save the Western art Hitler has been amassing to fill his planned Fuhrer Museum in Germany.
In short order, Stokes puts together a group of guys who are not so much misfits as sedentary smarties too old to be drafted or put through basic training, which, in fact, they have to endure since they’re likely to come under fire. There’s straitlaced art expert James Granger (Matt Damon), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), French art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban).
Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov throw in mild humor here and there as these American Wild Geese try to get in shape and Granger, who claims to speak French, is continually asked by the French to speak English instead because his French is so bad. Arriving on the secured beach at Normandy in July 1944, the men learn that their mission is disclaimed by local brass, who feel that risking any life for the sake of art is absurd.
It turns out the loot is mostly hidden in mines, so it comes down to a race between the Americans and both the Nazis, who would rather burn Picassos rather than have them fall into Allied hands, and the Russians, who consider it blood money. But the contest is less suspenseful than it is self-sacrificing and uplifting. As the driving impulse behind the project thus seems to have been to honor the men without whom the legacy of Western art might have been gravely compromised, it may seem rude to suggest that the film would have been better had it backpedaled this sentiment in favor of a rougher drama with a more arbitrary and surprising attitude toward life and death or a comic drama about some guys just getting the job done. Too much of the time, “The Monuments Men” falls into a compromised middle zone, not urgent and only mildly amusing.
Murray and Goodman work within a subdued range for them and Damon is just ok. Wait to see this on DVD.