Empowerment isn’t a quality often linked to World War II stories and it can be thrilling to see soldiers take action against Hitler’s army in a way unfamiliar to most. The historically accurate “gimmick” of the masterful, underrated Valkyrie was portraying a group of German soldiers plotting to assassinate Hitler. Even though the end of the film was a given, the enormity of the mission and the potential of overthrowing the Fuhrer made the film something of a novelty.
Most WWII-era films portray the victims of that horrible time and it was refreshing to see former Nazi sympathizers and yes-men take action against their party. The appeal of The Monuments Men is similar, as it portrays another seldom told history lesson: the efforts of U.S. soldiers to steal back the massive collection of art that Hitler was accumulating for his grotesque museum. Here’s another great cinematic middle finger to the Nazis but with a touch that almost undoes it. Yes, we also get the empowerment of taking action against a horrible enemy but what makes this film so strange is how pleasant it is.
George Clooney directed, co-wrote the screenplay and leads an ensemble cast of actors playing the so-called “Monuments Men,” tasked with tracking down the many art works scattered and hidden in Nazi territory near the end of the war. Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville, John Goodman, Bob Balaban and Jean Dujardin make up the rest of the team. This plays less like a 1940’s Ocean’s Eleven and more like an old fashioned war time drama, that could have starred Gregory Peck or Cary Grant in their prime. The tone is so cheerful, it works against allowing tension to build. What results is that rare war movie you can safely watch with your grandparents.
There is one scene in which Damon uncovers a barrel full of gold, which he realizes come from fillings removed from Jewish prisoners. Otherwise, there’s hardly any grit or darkness. There are verbal references to the horrors of the Holocaust but the mood is mostly upbeat and optimistic. During the few scenes where Clooney allows a feeling of somber reflection to briefly creep in, Alexandre Desplat’s overly busy score softens the blow and obtrusively underscores every scene, as though we won’t know how to feel from moment to moment and need a musical guide.
The story is important but Clooney sometimes makes his argument for art preservation gooey rather than intellectual. His big speech about preserving art history would have been better given to anyone other than the film’s director. Clooney’s reading of his feel good sermons on the value of art feel self congratulatory. While Clooney’s film is handsomely made and better than his lightweight Leatherheads and heavy-handed Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, it lacks the cutting simplicity of Good Night and Good Luck, his best directed film to date.
While there always feels like something’s missing, the great parts make it worth seeing. Murray has a scene, in which he reflects on the family he left behind, that moved me to tears; all his sequences where he’s paired with Balaban are terrific. So is Clooney’s showdown with a smug Nazi prisoner and Dujardin’s big scene with Goodman (who, sadly, is the most underused actor in the film). Cate Blanchett is very good in a small character role, even as her scenes with Damon are more beneficial to the flow of the story than a needed shot in the arm for the film.
Clooney may have been aiming for a modern day Grand Illusion. A good try, though the end result is entertaining but incomplete.
Score: ** and a half stars (1-5 Star Scale)