Throughout World War II, as the Nazi war machine brought Europe to its knees, the highest levels of the Fuhrer’s government had ideas on home decoration that were almost as evil as their plan for the Jewish people. Europe is home to some of the world’s most beautiful art, masterpieces like the Ghent altarpiece, the Mona Lisa, the Madonna and Child, and thousands of other painting, sculptures, and buildings that are irreplaceable markers of human achievement and mankind’s ability to create something beautiful out of pigments in oil or a block of marble.
At the highest levels of power, the Nazi government decided to use the world’s greatest art museums as their personal shopping mall, except they didn’t pay for their art and they typically killed any museum curator or religious official who got between them and the world’s treasures. As the Germans retreat from advancing Allies, they take everything not nailed down, and what they can’t take (or what they don’t like, like any modern art), they destroy.
This is what motivates Frank Stokes (George Clooney) to assemble a team of artists, historians, curators, architects, and other art experts to rescue the world’s finest art. Joining his team are James Granger (Matt Damon), Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville). They’re not the best and brightest of young art students; they’re all off fighting in the war. They’re the best of what’s left, and they’re all that stands between Western civilization and a Nazi flamethrower.
If it’s possible for a movie to be both too light and too preachy, then Monuments Men is both of those things, albeit never at the same time. The movie, for the bulk of its run, is a pretty amusing light comedy. These are a bunch of middle-aged professor-types, artists and sculptors and architects, not seasoned soldiers. Yet there they are, slubby and gray, carrying guns they can barely use and boldly going into the combat theater to rescue not Private Ryan, but Vermeer and Picasso and Michelangelo. These are high-minded men doing high-minded work, and George Clooney never misses a chance to moralize.
Indeed, Clooney the writer (who wrote the script along with collaborator Grant Heslov) is detrimental to Clooney the actor and director. The framing devices serve mainly as a chance for George to wax philosophically about the power of art, and at several points, Clooney speaks to the camera and goes into great detail as to why art is valuable and important to the human experience as a whole. That’s all well and good – I’m not going to argue that art is better off being burned – but it’s also quite at odds with the rest of the movie. When the Monuments Men are together, the tone is light and airy, more Bridge on the River Kwai than Good Night and Good Luck. Then, every so often, Clooney will proceed to beat the audience over the head with some personal belief of his and kind of ruin the spell.
It’s a shame, really, as it completely fractures the film. The cast is brilliant, anchored by Clooney and ably aided by the consistently good John Goodman, the glorious Bill Murray, an impressively charismatic Jean Dujardin, and a scene-stealing Bob Balaban who is able to more than hold his own next to the great Bill Murray. Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett feel a bit superfluous, though Blanchett’s character does serve as a plot device. Still, when the Monuments Men are together, or paired off in their groups, the charm of the actors is allowed to come through and the script is fun. Bob Balaban and Bill Murray are a natural comic pairing, working off one another expertly thanks to their improv backgrounds. Ditto Jean Dujardin and John Goodman, who have a natural, friendly chemistry.
I can’t say enough about how good the cast is, and the ensemble nature of the film gives them all a chance to shine. Clooney has a good touch with the lighter moments, knowing when to pull back and show the Monuments Men taking in the horrors of war and knowing when to focus on a specific character at a specific moment. He takes great pains to show the beauty of the art stolen, and to show the harsh conditions Europe was left in during the latter stages of the war. The movie moves quickly, playing almost like an anthology than a complete film. There’s not much that connects John Goodman and Jean Dujardin to Bill Murray and Bob Balaban, aside from the mission and the occasional squad reunion scene. The individual segments typically work, but the framing devices (and the Matt Damon/Cate Blanchett plot) are lacking.
With such mixed results, Monuments Men isn’t a completely success, nor is it as good as it probably could have been. The silly fluff combined with heavy moralizing doesn’t really gel together, nor does the silly fluff gel nicely with the more tense or sad scenes. When it’s an Ocean’s 11-style military comedy adventure, it works really well. Clooney has the charm and the connections to make that work; he can’t quite pull off the tonal shifts needed to execute his vision for Monuments Men properly.
US Correspondent Ron Hogan isn’t exactly the museum-goer he should be, but when the Nazis burned those paintings, it was like being hit in the stomach. Find more by Ron daily at Shaktronics and PopFi.