George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men” goes against conventional wisdom about World War II movies. It takes its pleasures and dramatic moments not from combat or male camaraderie so much as from its backdoor approach to that great, horrific historical event.
For this is the mostly true story of seven over-the-hill guys, barely able to fire a gun, who went to and in some cases beyond the front lines to rescue some of the world’s great art treasures from the thievery and destruction of war.
So the movie’s characters move through combat zones, infiltrate villages, find rides wherever they can while remaining aloof from the actual battles and great action sequences of most war movies.
One arresting scene may explain the film’s strengths — and perhaps its weaknesses.
Writer-director-producer Clooney, wearing many hats — or perhaps I should say helmets — plays Frank Stokes, a leading art historian who with FDR’s blessing recruits a bunch of museum directors, artists, architects and curators to take basic training, then go to Europe to seek out looted art hidden behind enemy lines.
These are the Monuments Men: James Granger (Matt Damon), with New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art; Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), an architect, Walter Garfield (John Goodman), a renowned sculptor; Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), a French-Jewish art dealer.
The others are Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), an artist seeking refuge in the bottle for too long, and art historian and dandy Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), used mostly as a foil for Campbell’s pranks and sarcasm for no apparent reason. The only youngster in the gang is Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a Yank solider born a German Jew, who can drive and translate.
The scene I mentioned occurs when the fellows land at Normandy Beach, a mere month after D-Day. It hits the men hard: They suddenly realize they’re walking through a hellacious combat theater — a kind of hallowed ground — where so many lives were lost so recently yet look how peaceful it all looks now!
It’s a poignant moment, one where Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov see no need to add dialogue or find other means to point out the impact the scene has on their characters: This picture is worth more than a thousand words. Yet elsewhere the writers fail the exact same test: over-explaining the need to save great art at the expense of men’s lives.
“The Monuments Men” must settle for moments like this as the episodic film meanders through the French and German countrysides with the men asking questions about stolen art, getting lucky here but failing elsewhere when Nazi commanders efficiently carry out Hitler’s so-called Nero Degree, where the Fuhrer ordered everything amassed by German plunder to be destroyed if the war was lost.
Clooney and Heslov are able to build toward a climax of sorts in a race to save a few long-sought pieces from the retribution-driven Russians. Otherwise the movie deals in small incidents — gunfire whose source proves a surprise or a German soldier left behind who points a gun at Savitz or a broken tooth that leads to a chance discovery.
The film pretty much lacks dramatic build-ups or fateful deeds. It must find its drama in smaller moments, many of them revolving around Granger’s character’s attempts to win the trust of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a bespectacled employee of the Jeu de Paume gallery in Paris, which the Nazis used as a storage depot and shopping market for Hermann Göring.
Since she was forced to work for the occupiers, she’s labelled a “collaborator.” So when the Allies enter Paris, she clams up. Granger wants to know where all the art went, but she sees just another thief looking to score.
It takes a while to win her over to the American side. Mark Damon’s good looks really help in this instance. This story may have been worth a movie all its own.
Much of the art is hidden in mines, it turns out, so the race is on between Yanks and Nazis intent on destruction and Yanks and Russians intend on looting the loot.
None of these episodes is uninteresting. But these improbable tales might yield greater value in a book, such as the one the screenplay is based on by Robert M.Edsel with Bret Witter. This told the real story of the Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives group.
The characters played by these well-known actors are fictionalized, based on actual people but with new names and character ticks attached so the screenwriters could feel free to create conflicts and flaws. Maybe greater conflicts and flaws are needed. (No one is really “flawed” as such.)
The film spends too much time with the Monuments Men giving speeches about the importance of art on civilization and not enough getting caught up in suspenseful or exciting action. Perhaps Clooney and Heslov stuck too close to actual events rather than letting their characters be a little more rambunctious, comical or enraged.
The contribution to Western civilization by men who saved so much art, much previously owned by private Jewish collectors, is undeniable. But the movie strains far too hard to convince you of their nobility and altruism. Consequently, they come off as less than human and more creatures of fiction.
Opens February 7, 2014 (Columbia Pictures)
Production: Columbia Pictures and Fox 2000 present a Smokehouse production
Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Cate Blanchett, Dimitri Leonidas
Director: George Clooney
Screenwriters: George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Based on the book by: Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter
Producers: Grant Heslov, George Clooney
Executive producer: Barbara A. Hall
Director of photography: Phedon Papamichael
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Music: Alexandre Desplat
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editor: Stephen Mirrione
PG-13 rating, 118 minutes