Not every war movie needs to be Saving Private Ryan—a searing, dark journey into man’s inhumanity to man at its most inhuman. Yet there’s also something odd about a war movie as, well, jolly as The Monuments Men.
Adapting a true story, George Clooney directed, co-scripted and stars as Lt. Frank Stokes, an art historian who convinces President Roosevelt that there’s a moral imperative to try to save great works of art and architecture from either Nazi hoarding or Allied bombing. And so Stokes puts together an all-star team of “Monuments Men”—including architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art historian James Granger (Matt Damon) and sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman)—to help track down stolen masterpieces and save others from the threat of destruction.
The narrative pivots around the compelling question of whether saving art is worth risking lives, a question that various army brass answer with a resounding “no” in their lack of cooperation with the team’s mission. Even as various members of the team try to find redemption—including an alcoholic British officer (Hugh Bonneville) and a French would-be fighter pilot grounded by bad vision (Jean Dujardin)—the central idea remains one about the value of individual lives set against the value of great creative works.
But Clooney mostly ditches that idea for a series of episodic anecdotes, many of them played for comedic effect. When Goodman and Dujardin are threatened by a sniper, the entire confrontation is played for laughs, right down to the revelation of the gunman in a jokey spin on the climax of Full Metal Jacket; ditto the moment when Damon’s character inadvertently steps on a landmine. And when the film does try to get serious, it simply feels forced. Clooney wants an Indiana Jones vibe of rollicking adventure as his crew recovers artifacts from the Nazis, but can’t get beyond turning pages in a whimsical art-history textbook.
THE MONUMENTS MEN
George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman