Don’t go to “The Monuments Men” expecting to see a flippant WWII “Ocean’s Fourteen.” It’s deliciously entertaining, but deeper than that. Though George Clooney is leading an all-star crew through a daring heist — rescuing occupied Europe’s greatest art treasures from the Nazis — this is a sturdy, old-school, big-scale Greatest Generation war movie. It’s great escapism.
The unlikely story is about true-life heroism, not irony. It’s 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. It’s a story about men risking lives to save Western culture’s greatest achievements from brutes who saw books and timeless art as tinder and kindling.
The stakes are clear from the opening scene, with Da Vinci’s 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.
They’re an odd lot, gifted and flawed, and they don’t always get along with each other or their pragmatic GI counterparts. The film doesn’t squander a lot of time building background stories for them. With iconic faces and talents like these, that’s 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 Clooney’s part. It’s 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. She’d be executed on the spot if they realized she was secretly cataloging the destinations of national treasures being carted away for display in Hitler’s proposed Führer Museum. To recapture that beauty — there are worse reasons to risk your life. Her ardor helps convince even skeptics that there’s 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, it’s 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 film’s emotional peak hits at a time, and in a way, you’re unprepared for. While a medic (played by Clooney’s 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 Clooney’s father, Nick, you know you’re watching one straight from the heart. And that’s right where it hits you.