Film Review: The Monuments Men

A quaint filmmaking style dilutes the impact of this true-life World War II story of unlikely soldiers seeking to retrieve priceless works of art from the Nazis.

A film set in the 1940s that feels like it was made in the 1960s, The Monuments Men is George Clooney’s earnest but rather lead-footed effort to pay tribute to a group of little-known heroes of World War II with an unusual but vital mission. The real-life story is intriguing and full of cinematic potential, but Clooney’s tame, conventional approach as director and co-writer (with longtime creative partner Grant Heslov) robs the narrative of much of its tension and drive.

The Monuments Men were a group of middle-aged art experts recruited as soldiers in a quest to rescue the millions of paintings, sculptures and other artifacts stolen by the Nazis in their march across Europe. Arriving on the continent during the final year of the war, with the Germans now on the verge of defeat, they faced a ticking clock, as the enemy vowed to destroy these treasures rather than surrender them and the Russian allies were determined to claim any captured artworks as reparations.

Clooney has assembled an enticing cast for his project; they all deliver solid performances but have few opportunities to truly shine. Clooney himself, with a mustache that makes him look more than ever like Clark Gable, is Frank Stokes (George Stout in real life), head of the conservation department at Harvard’s Fogg Museum and leader of the group. Matt Damon plays James Granger, based on James Rorimer, curator of the Cloisters (and later director of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art). Also joining the team are architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray); sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman); art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), based on famed New York City Ballet co-founder Lincoln Kirstein; French art dealer Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin); British art expert Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”); and 19-year-old Sam Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas), a Jew who fled Germany for America and enlisted as an Army private. A possible ally, but one who needs to be persuaded, is Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a curator at Paris’ Jeu de Paume who has been arrested as a collaborator but holds valuable information about the location of many of the purloined artworks; she’s based on the real-life Rose Valland.

In line with Clooney’s public personality, The Monuments Men has a jaunty, often-playful tone that dissipates its power as gripping drama; no opportunity is spared to poke fun at this over-the-hill gang’s shortcomings as macho warriors. (The usually dependable Alexandre Desplat’s insistent music score doesn’t help either.) When it’s not being lightly comic, the movie tends toward loquacious statements about its main theme: the value of artistic achievements versus the individual lives that may be lost in shielding them. It’s a good and complicated question, but one that should have had a visual correlative instead of so many moments of sincere speechifying.

The story proceeds as episodes of varying interest rather than gathering momentum. Some are more compelling than others: Garfield and Clermont’s poorly timed respite in an open field; a visit to the household of an SS man hoarding priceless masterpieces who claims he’s just an ordinary soldier; the climactic race to retrieve a historic Madonna statue and a sought-after altarpiece before the Russians lay claim to them. And despite the old-fashioned filmmaking style here, production values are consistently impressive.

But with the many talented stars onboard and a fascinating hidden war story, The Monuments Men, unlike the mission it depicts, is a lost opportunity.