Art may not be more important than human lives. But on the list of things that mean something to human lives, across centuries, it ranks pretty high. That's what's so compelling about the story of the Monuments Men, a group of people from 13 nations who volunteered to protect cultural treasures from destruction during World War II. Most of us like to think we'd stride into a combat zone to save a distressed child. But would we do the same for a Michelangelo Madonna?
You can see why George Clooney, director and star of The Monuments Men, would be attracted to these comparatively unheralded heroes, particularly as Robert M. Edsel (with Bret Witter) presents them in his gloriously readable 2009 book of the same name. Edsel focuses on the eight men, among them museum curators and art historians, who trekked to Europe at the tail end of the war "to inspect and preserve" every important work of art or architecture in the path of the Allied forces between the English Channel and Berlin — and, as it turns out, ended up saving hundreds of stolen works that Hitler's troops had amassed for a grand museum to be built in the Führer's honor in Austria.
History, politics, and civic ideals are catnip to Clooney the director, and following those interests led him to make the finest of his five pictures (Good Night, and Good Luck), as well as a stolid, not terrifically memorable one (The Ides of March). What's more, Edsel's account of the Monuments Men's subtle heroics features a character Clooney was born to play: Harvard art conservator George S. Stout, the man responsible for assembling this corps of trained specialists, a pencil-mustached gent whose uniform was neatly pressed even under the most trying conditions.
But The Monuments Men, either despite its clearly noble intentions or because of them, stumbles on the march. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov embellish, rearrange, and condense many of the details. They also change the names of the characters, reduce their number to seven, and turn them into composites, none of which is a problem. But Clooney can't control the story; it keeps flying out of his grasp like an unruly spring. The Monuments Men feels loose and disorganized, even though all the requisite cogs (including a jaunty ascot of a score by Alexandre Desplat) have been accounted for.
At least Clooney finds glory in the corners. His great skill as a director might be his affinity for actors. The performers in a Clooney-directed movie nearly always have some quiet sparkle about them. Onscreen here, Clooney, though dashing, is more an emcee than a central figure. He has also taken the liberty of pairing characters off into unlikely twosomes, and as these duos set out to face both the usual and some unexpected dangers, those chemistry experiments pay off. John Goodman (as a jolly sculptor) and Jean Dujardin (an unidentified art expert type, really just the movie's token French charmer) head out in a jeep, as if on a lark, eventually reaching a field populated by a single, magnificent horse. Dujardin leaps from the truck to say hello, though he has nothing to offer his new friend but a cigarette (wisely rejected). The moment is wonderful, a meeting of two long-legged movie-star beauties.
Less dazzling but possibly more complex is the tentative tango between Matt Damon (a medieval art expert) and Cate Blanchett (an icy French secretary who seems to have more feeling for art than people). Damon's character has more down-home charm than you'd expect from a medieval art guy, but you believe in him anyway, and Blanchett gives a slightly stylized performance that opens out like a cautious morning glory.
Hugh Bonneville has some nicely tuned moments as an art enthusiast with a lifelong affection for the Madonna of Bruges, the only Michelangelo sculpture to leave Italy during the artist's lifetime. Clooney plays fast and loose with some of the facts here, but he wisely takes note of one real-life detail: German soldiers — at that point in the war, retreating and desperate and therefore perhaps even more driven to please their leader — stole the Madonna by wrapping her in mattresses and hustling her away in a Red Cross truck, a dirty trick even for Nazis.
The finest scenes belong to Bob Balaban, as a cranky unspecified expert at something-or-other, and Bill Murray, who plays a renowned architect — that's pretty hilarious casting, though somehow it works. Balaban's character, disgruntled that he's only a private, wants little to do with anyone else, least of all loosey-goosey Murray. Still, as both people and movie characters do, they forge a friendship out of dirty looks and grumbling. Hunkered down in an army encampment, they huddle over packages sent from home: Balaban's contains crackers, a gift that delights him; his features, previously so pinched and cranky, suddenly seem lit from within. Murray's contains a recording made by his daughter and grandchildren, but he needs a record player to hear it, and good luck finding one of those. The actors then share one of those graceful, underplayed moments that you remember long after your memories of an otherwise not-great movie have dimmed. The Monuments Men fails in its grand ambitions, but it's still satisfying in bits and pieces, like a busted statue. Even a tribute made of shining fragments counts for something.