George Clooney's The Monuments Men tells the largely true story of a squad of art experts who, near the end of World War II, are assigned to protect the masterworks of European society from Nazi theft and Allied bombardment. You'll notice those are two separate goals.
The first is to stop the flood of art from occupied countries to Germany. Hitler, you see, isn't just a genocidal maniac but also a pretentious aesthete who wants to dictate taste — who sells off what he doesn't want to fund his war machine and seizes the rest for a prospective super-museum in his hometown. The Monuments Men's other goal is to keep Allied commanders from shelling particular targets — a tough case to make to men wracked by the loss of troops and anxious to prevent further carnage. Who in such circumstances cares about a bunch of paintings or statues?
Who, indeed? One problem with The Monuments Men is that Clooney clearly wants to reach a mainstream American audience he thinks needs convincing art matters. Again and again, his character, Frank Stokes, makes speeches to make sure that we understand what's at stake.
The Monuments Men comes off as more of a, well, monument than a vital work of art. It's engaging, but a little blah, a little formulaic. It begins with a round-up-the-team sequence that's only charming because of who the actors are. Matt Damon is plucked from a ladder as he works on a church ceiling and architect Bill Murray from leading a skyscraper tour. Alcoholic curator Hugh Bonneville gets offered a chance to come back from disgrace and redeem himself, heart-warmingly. Jean Dujardin of The Artist is a Frenchman who's there because he knows the territory. Bob Balaban is the ultra-serious specialist who trades witless insults with Murray. It's an all-star cast in which the stars are all low-wattage.
There's only one embarrassing subplot: It features Cate Blanchett as a prim, bespectacled French curator who secretly plots against a piggy SS man preparing trainloads of art for der Fuhrer's proposed Uber-Museum. Earnest Damon has to prove to her he's not rounding up paintings to ship back to America, and when she's satisfied his aim is art for art's sake, she lets down her hair and becomes a real woman. Sacre bleu!
Clooney must have been eager — after helping to shape such acid, anti-imperialist movies as Syriana — to make a hopeful, positive war picture, with a light-hearted marching-drum and woodwind score. But he plays everything so safe. He doesn't linger on the contrast between timeless masterpieces and the chaos and obscenity of war. He doesn't even linger on the masterpieces themselves — you barely see them.
Worse, he panders to the audience. When the Monuments Men come up against snipers and murderous Nazi commandants, Stokes announces to his men that they've finally earned the right to wear their uniforms. But if they need to take bullets to prove they're real soldiers, what are all those high-flown speeches about preserving civilization?
The scale of the Nazi plunder is laid out better in the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, and the story is more thrillingly evoked in John Frankenheimer's 1964 The Train, featuring Paul Scofield as an art-obsessed Nazi and Burt Lancaster as the station master bent on keeping France's masterworks from reaching Germany. But The Monuments Men isn't terrible. Coming in the wake of wars that have been far more morally confusing, it's an earnest tribute to decency, to good taste. The movie could have been called, The Dainty Dozen.