George Clooney stars as Frank Stokes – a historian concerned World War II is taking a toll on some of the greatest accomplishments of civilization. Fearing Hitler’s army is capturing all of the greatest art known to mankind as they raid European countries and steal it from private citizens, churches and museums, he proposes the US form a special unit, The Monuments Men, comprised of experts in art, architecture and more to go to Europe and find the purloined Rembrandts, Picassos, Michelangelos and more before it is too late.
As the Allied forces start to defeat Germany and send them into retreat, the Nazis have been trying to bring all of these artifacts back to their home country, and destroying what they cannot carry or make off with. The time to act is now.
Of course, while the work is noble, they encounter many who are more worried about the lives of the men and women fighting on the battlefields and living in the cities under Nazi control, and the one woman who might be able to help them find everything, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), isn’t so sure she can trust the Monuments Men, and they might have to wonder if they can trust her.
The Monuments Men is a movie with strange tone issues and a challenge to make the audience care. On the surface, the idea of the movie screams serious and emotional as we see these men who have dedicated themselves to art doing what they can when what they love is in more peril than it ever has been in the history of mankind. Make no mistake about it, the consequences of failure are massive.
Yet, The Monuments Men, most of the time, plays like a romp. You feel like you are watching these guys on some sort of road trip complete with the wacky Basic Training scenes and some wisecracks thrown in to keep the audience guffawing. Some of it is welcome, but Clooney, as director, kind of misses the turn when The Monuments Men should be merging from the dramedy lane into the off ramp toward serious. Throughout the movie, the characters are trying to convince the world what they are doing is important and serious, and the movie should be trying to do the same thing instead of joking around so much.
Plus, the audience, much like the people in the film, need to be convinced why this is such a vital and crucial exercise. In a world where we don’t worry about losing paintings or musical recordings or movies because they all exist digitally on a computer someplace, the compelling argument of why needs to be made.
Clooney gets a moment to make the big speech to win over the audience and rally us behind the cause, but the script only kind of delivers. It’s a double instead of a home run as Clooney, as one of the co-writers, and co-writer Grant Heslov act as if the importance of this mission is self-evident, which it might be to people in creative fields, but not to hourly wage workers who have more of a natural and justifiable concern for the young men and women who would be losing their lives in war. Survival of the body seems much more vital than survival of art.
In a movie full of some of the best and most beloved actors in films, Cate Blanchett knocks it out of the park. She wonderfully displays that very unique, steely European aloofness developed as a protection measure that we used to see from people of that generation. Yet, she also allows Claire to have some vulnerability as she finds one ray of hope to believe in.
The rest of the cast makes The Monuments Men watchable due to their easygoing charm, which overcomes some shortcomings. Every one of them is so good, respected and beloved, we are willing to forgive.
The Monuments Men is rated PG-13 for some images of war violence and historical smoking.