By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The Monuments Men may not be monumental, but it sure is quietly but richly entertaining.
Co-written, produced, and directed by George Clooney, who also leads the ensemble cast, it tells the fictionalized true story of the US government’s efforts to recapture precious artwork stolen by the Nazis toward the end of World War II.
Multi-hyphenate Clooney, directing for a fifth time (The Ides of March; Good Night, and Good Luck; Leathernecks; Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), has an impressive array of actors filling out the roles, including Matt Damon as an art restorer, Bill Murray as a Chicago architect, John Goodman as a sculptor, Jean Dujardin as a French painting instructor, Hugh Bonneville as a British museum head, and Bob Balaban as a theatre impresario, all at his command.
And in a prominent subplot, Cate Blanchett plays a Parisian “collaborator” and assistant museum curator who knows where much of the stolen artwork is but won’t tell the Allies because she fears that they won’t return it to the French.
It’s Damon’s job to convince her to change her mind.
The screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov, its exposition on the stingy side, is based on the 2010 nonfiction book The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, by Robert M. Edsel.
It’s a chronicle of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program, an Allied group assigned to go behind enemy lines during World War II in a race against time, track down and rescue art masterpieces and other important cultural artifacts before they can be destroyed by Hitler, and then return them to their rightful owners.
And who took on this improbable if not impossible mission? Not superspies or secret agents or Spandex-clad superheroes, but a team of seven cerebral and sedentary citizens: American and British museum directors, curators, and art historians who, following D-Day, traveled around Europe’s war zones in pursuit of these cherished and valuable items.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes (inspired by the real-life George L. Stout), a curator and conservationist who, in the spring of 1944, persuades a reluctant President Franklin Delano Roosevelt of the importance of preserving priceless Western art treasures by rescuing them from the Nazis’ looting operation, during which they have hidden purloined works of art with plans to destroy them during their retreat.
A greatest-generation period piece that combines group-effort elements of The Great Escape and Ocean’s Eleven, (along with ragtag-repertory strains from The Bad News Bears), The Monuments Men is certainly director Clooney’s most, if not only, “action”-oriented project thus far.
But it never abandons itself to shoot-‘em-up filler. Clooney struggles a bit with tone as he attempts the difficult mix of the studied goofiness of broad slapstick sequences with dramatic scenes lined with heart-tugging sentiment. If the two thrusts blended more smoothly, the film might proceed somewhat more commandingly towards its climax.
Still, there is significant viewing pleasure watching these high-profile stars do their understated thing and sufficient if not supreme suspense, even if the characters disperse at a certain point and our appreciation dips, and even if the script is a bit too preachy and literal in its attempt to convince the audience of the importance of the mission they’re watching unfold.
So we’ll rescue 3 stars out of 4 for the bloodless and enjoyable The Monuments Men, a thoughtful thriller in which appealing antiheroes struggle to prevent the death of culture and George Clooney creates his own modest (dare I say it?) work of art.