With George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Cate Blanchett. Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov. Directed by George Clooney. Rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking. 118 minutes.
By the 1960s, World War II was sufficiently enough in the past that movies about it could play as action/adventure stories rather than as movies meant to inspire patriotism on the homefront. Even when based on actual stories, movies like “The Longest Day” or “The Great Escape” were also showcases for their large casts and mixed some comic relief amongst the incidents of the violence and depictions of the chaos of war.
George Clooney’s THE MONUMENTS MEN–he stars, directs, and co-wrote the script with Grant Heslov–is a throwback to the films of that era. It’s based on historical fact (regardless of what liberties they’ve taken with it), it’s got a great cast, and it even features a jaunty score by Alexandre Desplat. It briefly sags in the third act before catching a second wind and racing to a strong finish. It’s the first really good film of the new year.
Late in the war, President Franklin Roosevelt tasked Frank Stokes (Clooney) with an unusual mission. As much as possible in the middle of the chaos of war, he and his team were to try to track down and recover the massive amounts of art that the Nazis had stolen and return them to their rightful owners. This was easier said than done, as Hitler and Göring had been treating Europe as a huge gallery for their benefit. Museums were looted and private collections–especially those belonging to Jews–were confiscated. The booty was to head to Germany for a proposed “Fuhrer Museum,” while “degenerate” modern art, such as works by Picasso, was simply destroyed.
There were many working on the recovery project, but the film reduces them to a small band to make it manageable. Architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray) and art historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) are, like several of the others, not really cut out to be soldiers. However, after brief basic training–in which Walter Garfield (John Goodman) discovers that he hadn’t quite heard the instructions–they are in uniform and in France. They have different missions. Some are tracking retreating Germans to try to figure out where the stolen art has been hidden. Others are looking for specific items, including a Michelangelo sculpture of the Madonna and Child. James Granger (Matt Damon) is in Paris trying to convince Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) to give him any information she has about the stolen art. The problem? She’s been jailed as a collaborator for working in the office of Viktor Stahl (Justus von Dohnányi), the man facilitating the art thefts, and she believes the Americans want to recover the art only to steal it for themselves.
As the story progresses, there are moments in turn of comedy, drama, suspense, and action. Granger’s French is so bad that the locals plead with him to speak in English. The British member of the team (Hugh Bonneville of “Downton Abbey”) has a cloud over his head and sees this as a chance for redemption. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Garfield face down a German sniper even though neither has ever been in real combat. Their resourceful driver Epstein (Dimitri Leonidas) finds himself comforting a dying soldier in a medical tent (with co-screenwriter Heslov getting a cameo as the doctor).
In short, there’s a marvelous cast thrown together in a war story in which there are real consequences, with people dying and repeated references to the Holocaust occurring off-screen, and yet can also celebrate unexpected heroism and equally unexpected humor. Clooney, as Stokes on-screen and as director, leads his team in a successful and entertaining effort. In a month where we’re going to see a number of films that hearken back to the past, “The Monuments Men” does it right by capturing the spirit of older movies while giving us a new and engaging story. Mission: accomplished.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.