The Monuments Men

by Robert Nesti

EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor

Friday February 7, 2014

Matt Damon and George Clooney
Matt Damon and George Clooney  

"The Monuments Men," George Clooney's hambone historical epic, brings attention to a little-known military mission to save stolen art during the Second World War. Midway through the war, American art curators became concerned that the Nazis, in a systematic fashion, were gathering a treasure-trove of great Western art (largely from private collections or, in some cases, museums and churches) for display in the Fuhrer Museum that was to be built in the city of Linz. When the camera sweeps through a scale model of the mammoth structure, it is apparent that there would need to be extensive plunder to fill it.

The plunder alarmed the Allies, who feared that not only would Hitler steal the art, but he might destroy it if defeat loomed. "Who will make sure Michelangelo's David is still standing? That the Mona Lisa is smiling?" wonders George Clooney in the narration that opens the film. With Bill Murray as one of the recruits, you half-expect someone to shout out "Artbusters!"

Okay, there's no catchy theme song, though Alexandre Desplat's jingoistic score echoes John Williams at every turn, and the film itself (that Clooney not only stars in but also directed and co-wrote) feels too much like watered-down Steven Spielberg for comfort. There are even shades of a "Saving Private Ryan" scene where Clooney and his fellow recruits - drawn not from the military but from academia and the arts - arrive on a Normandy beach in a transport vehicle with water splashing around them. The scene looks so studio-bound that you half-expect to see the crew throwing water onto the actors.

Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett  

Perhaps, though, that is Clooney’s intention: to make a glossy, Hollywood-styled movie that tells an uplifting story without much depth or suspense but with more clichés this side of a Sylvester Stallone action movie. There is likely a terrific movie to be made from this story of altruistic heroism; it is just not this one.

That Clooney’s directing career (this is his fifth film) has been so highly-regarded has always felt a bit like hagiography, with his early two films ("Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night and Good Luck") showing more creativity than his past two (the lumbering comedy "Leatherheads" and the shrill political drama "The Ides of March.") With his latest he attempts to make a war movie with high-minded ideals using baldly audience-friendly techniques (folksy characters, lame jokes). It’s something of a dull inverse of those "Oceans" movies, except this time Clooney and his crew are on the right side with the Nazis on the other.

Bill Murray andBob Balaban  

That crew includes Matt Damon, as a Boy Scoutish museum director sent to France to gather information from a mistrustful French art curator, played by Cate Blanchett, with a vast knowledge of where the Nazis had taken the art. (His bad French - one of the running jokes - doesn’t endear him to anyone, especially the audience, but is typical of the easy memes Clooney and co-scriptwriter Grant Heslov use throughout.) Blanchett’s character, a dour museum administrator, fooled the Nazis by appearing to help them with their looting; in actuality she’s a member of the French Resistance, keeping detailed records of the stolen art. There’s a faint whisper of romance between Damon and Blanchett, but this being the kind of movie that would have been welcome in 1955, there is little spark and certainly no payoff.

As the other members of the team, Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville and newcomer Dimitri Leonidas trudge through war-torn Europe in search of the missing art, which is seen fleetingly, though there’s much attention given two pieces: a Flemish altar piece and a Michelangelo statue of the Madonna and Child. There are run-ins with heartless Nazis, poignant references to the victims of the Holocaust (whose art makes up the bulk of the stolen art), and plenty of smoking. If anything, one of the unexpected takeaways of "The Monument Men" is how sexy it makes smoking cigarettes seem, especially when watching Dujardin and Leonidas chain smoke.

George Clooney and Hugh Bonneville  

There is a mystery at the film’s center - where did the Nazis hide the art? But it seems secondary to the anecdotal story-telling that never rises above ordinary. The performances are uniformly smarmy with Clooney the most egregious in his evocation of Hollywood stars such as Clark Gable or Gary Cooper. There is some comic chemistry between Baliban and Murray as an odd couple that bond over their mutual animosity; and strikingly tepid turns from Damon and Blanchett. Bonneville slides through his role as a scandal-plagued British aristocrat out to redeem himself and Dujardin seems to only register when he flashes his dazzling smile. He is paired with an emotive, if one-note Goodman as a sculptor-turned-operative.

With handsome production values and the occasional glimpse of art masterworks, "The Monuments Men" has a glossy sheen; it’s unfortunate that it is saddled with a by-the-numbers script that reduces a great story to a numbing, old school ensemble vehicle. For more revealing inquiries into this chapter of World War II history, check out two documentaries on the subject: "Hunting Hitler’s Stolen Treasures: The Monuments Men," which is currently airing on the National Geographic Channel, or "The Rape of Europa," a 2008 release that looks at how the Nazis plundered great art and the miraculous Allied recovery of it. These tell the story of these raiders of the lost art much better than this Spielberg wannabe.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].