The Monuments Men is old-fashioned in the fullest sense of that term. In
dramatizing the remarkable true-life initiative to save precious works of art
during the waning days of World War II in Europe, George Clooney (who directed,
co-produced, co-wrote, and stars in the film) and Grant Heslov (his writing and
producing partner) have taken a sharp turn from such provocative films as Syriana
and Good Night, and Good Luck. by consciously
evoking Hollywood movies of the past. There is no cynicism here; the leading
characters are genuinely, unabashedly heroic. (In the opening scene, President
Roosevelt is even shown, respectfully, from behind, his face obscured, just as
it was in Yankee Doodle Dandy.)
Clooney and Heslov based their screenplay on a historical book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, but have used dramatic license in creating many of their characters, an unlikely troop of overnight soldiers drawn from the ranks of art critics, dealers and curators played by Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett (sporting an impeccable French accent), John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and Jean Dujardin. They bicker and tease but they never lose sight of their mission, whether it’s rescuing a Michelangelo-carved Madonna housed in a Belgian church or locating a stash of paintings already looted by Hitler’s troops. Every one of them is willing to lay down his life rather than see the civilized world lose so much of its priceless heritage.
The film is episodic; a series of vignettes—by turns dramatic, comedic, and poignant. We never get to know the characters terribly well; they’re walking, talking symbols of humanity, fighting on the right side of this war. If the roles weren’t filled by such talented performers it would be hard to invest in the picture. Fortunately, Clooney and company have enough charisma to fuel several films, and they do their best to make up for the superficiality of the material.
It would be easy to nitpick The Monuments Men, but I must say I enjoyed it. It’s rare to find a movie that isn’t ironic or aloof, especially in its overarching goal, to pay tribute to an unpopular enterprise that paid off for posterity. Good intentions can’t save a bad movie, but they score points for one like this that might have been made while World War II was still underway. Some viewers will embrace this while others will reject it outright, I suspect; I tend to be forgiving in this case. If nothing else, it’s certainly a novelty among the mainstream movies of 2014.
Incidentally, the brilliant composer Alexandre Desplat not only provides an appropriate score (complete with a march theme) but appears on camera as a French farmer. He may well have a future as a character actor if he ever tires of writing great movie music.