Dont go to The Monuments Men expecting to see a flippant WWII Oceans Fourteen. Its deliciously entertaining, but deeper than that. Though George Clooney is leading an all-star crew through a daring heist rescuing occupied Europes greatest art treasures from the Nazis this is a sturdy, old-school, big-scale Greatest Generation war movie. Its great escapism.
The unlikely story is about true-life heroism, not irony. Its frequently funny yet earnest at heart. Directing, starring and co-writing, Clooney honors unheralded men who made a crucial contribution to the war for civilization. Its a story about men risking lives to save Western cultures greatest achievements from brutes who saw books and timeless art as tinder and kindling.
The stakes are clear from the opening scene, with Da Vincis wall mural The Last Supper near collapse after an Allied bombing raid on Milan in 1943 reduced the refectory housing it to rubble.
The Monuments Men follows the fictional characters of art conservationist Frank Stokes (Clooney) and museum director James Granger (Matt Damon) as they recruit a half-dozen artists and experts to preserve masterworks. The squad includes Bill Murray as an architect, John Goodman as a sculptor, Bob Balaban as a theater impresario and Jean Dujardin as a French resistance fighter.
Theyre an odd lot, gifted and flawed, and they dont always get along with each other or their pragmatic GI counterparts. The film doesnt squander a lot of time building background stories for them. With iconic faces and talents like these, thats unnecessary. Goodman conveys more with the twitch of an eye than pages of dialogue can tell, and the comic friction between Murray and Balaban is as sly as anything in a Christopher Guest movie. These actors have a sense of identity from the get-go.
The film looks stupendous, with Normandy Beach, Paris, snow-covered Belgian forests, castles and cathedrals gloriously photographed by Phedon Papamichael. The olive drab and gray of the military equipment and uniforms offer a striking contrast to the beautiful jewel tones of the art on display.
Most of the artwork in peril features religious subject matter, a canny choice on Clooneys part. Its shorthand for the way art inspires and enriches our daily lives, and for most viewers it carries deeper emotional associations than secular works by Vermeer or Rembrandt.
Cate Blanchett throbs with suppressed rage as a Paris curator forced into cooperation with Nazi art looters. Shed be executed on the spot if they realized she was secretly cataloging the destinations of national treasures being carted away for display in Hitlers proposed Führer Museum. To recapture that beauty there are worse reasons to risk your life. Her ardor helps convince even skeptics that theres more than canvas and paint and chiseled stone at stake here.
The film is episodic, and it could have been stronger with a centerpiece conflict between the old, out-of-shape scholars and a nemesis. Even so, its strong work, with a sense of the capricious ebb and flow of history. The offhand way the squad learns that the war has ended is a delightful throwaway.
The films emotional peak hits at a time, and in a way, youre unprepared for. While a medic (played by Clooneys co-writer Grant Heslov) works on a gravely wounded soldier, Murray hears a homemade recording of his grandchildren singing Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas over the camp PA system. At moments like that, and during the touching cameo appearance by Clooneys father, Nick, you know youre watching one straight from the heart. And thats right where it hits you.
-COLIN COVERT, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE