As the Second World War rages on while Allied Forces prepare for D-Day the Nazis loot the great art treasures of Europe. On Adolf Hitler's orders masterpieces from Michelangelo to Picasso, many stolen from Jewish collectors sent to die in concentration camps, are destined for the Third Reich. Art historian Professor Frank Stokes (George Clooney) believes passionately such treasures are worth rescuing from Nazi hands. To that end he convinces the American government to help form the Monuments Men, a special unit comprised of six museum curators, directors and art historians. Many of these men are old or out of shape and the task they face is not easy, yet they do so bravely. While James Granger (Matt Damon) liaises with French curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), Stokes leads Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Donald Jeffries (Hugh Bonneville), Jean-Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) across war-torn Europe on the greatest treasure hunt in history.
Based on the true story adapted into the like-named book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, this passion project for actor, director and co-writer George Clooney, working with regular collaborator Grant Heslov, had some expecting a jaunty Ocean's Eleven Goes to War. There is an element of the ever-watchable men-on-a-mission in World War Two sub-genre about The Monuments Men, all the more compelling for switching the focus away from fresh-faced young action heroes onto graying, paunchy yet much beloved comedians and character actors. It is kind of cool to see the likes of Bill Murray and John Goodman in fatigues, pulling guns on Nazis. But this is not The Sea Wolves (1980), thank goodness. Clooney has a much broader agenda and keeps the focus on character over action.
Central to the film is this question of whether it is worth men risking their lives for something as seemingly frivolous as art. In fact the film opens with Clooney's Professor Stokes debating this very point with no less than President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Throughout the story the Monuments Men face as big a challenge from their own incredulous military as they do from the Nazis, superiors who don't see the point in sacrificing lives for the sake of a few old paintings. Which on one level is a fair point to make. Indeed sacrifices are made, lives are lost and the protagonists, in particular Stokes himself, grapple internally with the question of whether it is worth it. Yet through Stokes, Clooney the filmmaker argues that art is more than merely decorative. Art is the soul of humanity. Our culture embodies our way of life, its history is the cradle of our civilization and that which Adolf Hitler sought to possess, pervert by 'purging' it of any 'corrupting' Jewish influence or destroy. Clooney stresses the value in protecting mankind's greatest achievements from destruction as equal to safeguarding lives.
Truth be told the film overreaches. Its splintered narrative tracks different characters through different locales around Europe, jumping between sub-plots in an occasionally awkward way. It is a film of lively, well-crafted vignettes that while not cohesive remain engaging, e.g. a running gag about Granger's faltering French, Campbell's reaction to a recorded Christmas message from his family, Garfield and Clermont stumbling into a shootout and a brilliantly tense, funny confrontation between Campbell, Savitz and a Nazi art thief in hiding capped by a perfect zinger from a deadpan Bill Murray. Sure enough many of the high points come from the seasoned SNL scene-stealer. If Clooney tries to cram a whole mini-series worth of incidents, ideas and vignettes into a film that ends up unwieldy as a consequence, one still can't fault his ambition or the sincerity of his belief in the enduring value of art.