Based on the “true story” of a motely gang of art historians, museum curators, and the occasional sculptor for balance, who risked their lives to save and protect major works of art that were stolen by Nazis during the second world war, The Monuments Men, as they were called, feels a little like a war-themed Ocean’s 11.
Critics were pretty hard on this movie, but having finally watched it, I feel like that’s unfair. Art expert Franks Stokes assembles a crack team just as impressive as any of Danny Ocean’s – Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Hugh Bonneville and Dimitri Leonidas all give strong performances though they compete for screen time. Bill Murray and Bob Balaban are probably my favourite duo; they play off each other fabulously. The trouble with The Monuments Men is with the tone: this wants to be a light-hearted caper, like Ocean’s 11, but Clooney feels too much reverence for the subject and so throws in another lecture rather than a joke. Truthfully, when George Clooney lectures, I’m going to listen. That man has the twinkliest eyes short of Santa Claus. But this is not exactly playing to his cast’s strength, or his audience’s expectations.
The Monuments Men arrive mostly as the war is winding down, so there aren’t a lot of battle scenes, which is not to say there is no blood. Anyone looking for a typical, action-driven war movie will be out of luck, though it certainly looks like one, with beautiful, crumbly post-war Europe shot and framed with care. This one is more of an intellectual exercise, with a moral question at its heart: is a human life worth a piece of art?
Clooney’s character answers this rather touchingly, in the end, with an older version of himself visiting a monument he recovered in the 1970s. “Yeah,” he says, eyes twinkling. I wondered for half a second if this was perhaps the real Frank Stokes but it was the twinkle that gave it away. Must be a Clooney, I thought, and so it was (Nick, George’s dad).
George Clooney knows this is a story worth telling, and seeks to honour the men who made it possible. It just feels like maybe this is the wrong medium to do it. Even at two hours, he just barely manages to give each of his actors one big “moment.” The monuments are pretty well served, but to really know the men, maybe a miniseries would have been more appropriate. Next time, George, take it HBO.