The Monuments Men is a profoundly well-intentioned movie that seeks to pay deserved tribute to a subject both moving and dramatic: the effort by the Allies to protect the cultural patrimony of the West during World War II. But just as the road to hell is paved with good intentions, so, too, it would appear, is the road to excruciating boredom.
All the elements of a classic war picture are here: unlikely military men, unusual mission, the inherent conflict between doing what is necessary to win a just war and preserving precious and delicate goods. But The Monuments Men is a total stiff, one of the more unconvincing depictions of war and its consequences ever made.
The movie is taken from the 2009 book of the same name, which details how a dozen or so extremely unconventional and startlingly old soldiers (the youngest in his mid-30s) were assigned to do what they could to either prevent the bombing of historic and culturally significant sites or mitigate the damage that followed bombings and street battles. For a year following the D-Day invasion, they accompanied American troops and tried to locate great works of art stolen by the Nazi high command, hidden away in caves and mines and on trains.
The book, by Robert Edsel and Bret Witter, is overstuffed and, at times, ludicrously melodramatic. By contrast, the movie is understuffed and uninvolving, no doubt in part because of budgetary considerations. The Monuments Men mostly takes place as the U.S. Army is moving, or trying to move, into Germany through France and the Low Countries, where they get mired in the Ardennes Forest in the nightmarishly cold winter of 1944-45, during the Battle of the Bulge. But you never get a sense of the sheer scale of the conflict. You never get a sense of the sacrifices, the human cost to the liberators. Mostly, you see a lot of rubble.
The book fails because it seeks to tell the story of the war’s last year in Europe through the eyes of the Monuments Men; but they were glancing participants, and their undeniably noble mission was nonetheless incidental to the outcome of the war. Still, they could have been the dramatis personae for a terrific movie. The real-life Monuments Men included a curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, an innovative painting conservator, a public-art sculptor, and the cultural impresario Lincoln Kirstein—all of whom wanted to join the war effort to make a difference and to help save Western civilization from the Nazi horde as best they could.
George Clooney, who also co-wrote and directed the film, plays the head Monuments Man. He is supported by Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, and Bob Balaban. You could not have asked for a more watchable cast, but none of them is given a character to play. Instead, Clooney twinkles, Damon grins, Murray smirks, Dujardin glitters, Goodman mugs, and Balaban frowns. The winsomeness is oppressive, especially when accompanied by a whimsical musical score by Alexandre Desplat.
Cate Blanchett, perhaps the most overrated actress alive, is nothing short of ridiculous in her supporting role as a dowdy French museum official. The real-life model for her character, Rose Valland, was a remarkable person who burrowed herself into the Jeu de Paume museum in Paris and, at enormous personal risk, kept secret track of the art being stolen by Hermann Göring and other Nazi monsters. Her book on the subject was the loose source material for the riveting 1964 movie The Train, with Burt Lancaster as a French railway official in 1944 trying to prevent the Nazis from removing France’s birthright before the fall of Paris. She would make a great central character for a film.
Instead, Clooney has Blanchett glowering and pouting and declaiming her wooden dialogue in an accent that makes her sound like Natasha from the Boris and Natasha cartoons as she casts smoldering glances at Matt Damon—who looks like he would rather be captured by the Germans than spend a night in bed with her.