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George Clooney Saves the World (Or At Least Art) in ‘The Monuments Men’

George Clooney Saves the World (Or At Least Art) in 'The Monuments Men'

The Monuments Men
begins with a captivating scene, set in Belgium during World War II. We see close-ups
of a work of art — van Eyck’s 15th century Ghent Altarpiece — hear banging, then see
priests crate up the individual panels of the painting, put them in a truck in the
dark  of night and send it off for
safekeeping — only, we soon hear, to have the Nazis waylay the truck and add
the masterpiece to the piles of stolen art Hitler is accumulating for his planned
Fuhrer Museum.

George Clooney is director, co-writer, star and driving
force behind this adventure, based on facts too crazy to have made up: late in the
war, the American military created a small international group of art curators,
historians and architects, who joined up as overaged soldiers, to find and save
thousands of priceless works by Michelangelo, Leonardo, Vermeer and others. For
much of the time, The Monuments Men
is Oceans 11 (and 12 and 13) with Nazis,  a heist
movie with Clooney and his gang going after looted masterpieces rather than Vegas
cash.

Earl

y on, we even see Clooney’s character, a curator  named Frank Stokes (based on the real-life Fogg
Museum curator George Stout) round up his team one by one, just like Danny
Ocean. On screen, Clooney is in old-movie-star mode — dashing, graying, with a
Clark Gable moustache. And off-screen he has put together a group so high-profile
and accomplished we hardly have to say the film is blissfully acted. Matt Damon
plays a Metropolitan Museum curator sent to France to work with Cate
Blanchett’s character, a French Resistance fighter who works at the Jeu de
Paume and knows the Nazis’ secrets. For comic relief, Bill Murray and Bob
Balaban are teamed up as bickering architects. John Goodman is the epitome of
the out-of-shape but savvy American, while Jean Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville represent
the international aspect of the Monuments Men team. (They are based on actual
people, whose stories are in Robert Edsel’s book, the main source for the film.)   

The Monuments Men race around German, Italy, and France in
jeeps, they are shot at, they blow things up and eventually find underground
mines so laden with treasures the mines might be rooms at the Louvre.  It is all entertaining enough. Yet in the end
it is also strangely flat.

Part of the problem is that the movie never quite
convinces  us of the high stakes behind
the mission — not until, very late in the film and with the war lost, we see
Nazis set fire to a room full of paintings. And all those scenes of jeeps and
tents and care packages from home feel stale. We know that Clooney is deeply
nostalgic, but what might be homage to old war movies plays as cliched.

The biggest problem — the lethal problem — is that in
addition to all his other roles, Clooney assumes one more familiar posture: America’s
schoolteacher. (Think about how often he has scolded us, about everything from
paparazzi to bad journalism.) We first see Stokes at a lectern, showing slides
and telling FDR  — while informing us —
about the need for a Monuments Men team. After he gets the team, every now and then
he gives his men an inspirational little pep talk about the need to preserve
our cultural heritage.  And every time, it feels like he’s lecturing at  us. Nothing
matters to me more than art and cutlure, so I hate saying so, but I wish Clooney’s
head worked as well as his heart on this one. The trite preachiness doesn’t help
a film that is ostensibly about great art.

Shifting back and forth between caper and classroom lesson,
the film never finds a comfortable tone. And when the caper turns serious, even
tragic, it also becomes mawkish. Stokes tells his team that with the loss of
one of  its members “we earned the
right to wear the uniform.”  Alexandre
Desplat’s disappointing score gives sappy cues in scenes like this, just as it goes for retro World War II movie music for the action scenes.  

Clooney and Grant Heslov, who wrote the screenplay, displayed
a similar heavy-handed moralism in Good
Night, and Good Luck
. Their screenplay for The Ides of March, about political wheeling-dealing and
back-stabbing, was written with Beau Willimon and actually improved on Willimon’s
play Farragut North. The difference
is not the one Clooney points out in the new film’s production notes. “We’ve made some cynical films, but in
general, we really aren’t cynical people,” he says of his work with Heslov
on Ides. This time, “We wanted
to do a movie that wasn’t cynical, a movie that was straightforward,
old-fashioned, and had a positive forward movement to it.”  Fair enough, but a better film would have shown us the value of art, without
spoon-feeding us clunky lines and mini-lectures.

D

espite all this, Clooney arrives at a very touching ending.
And you have to admire what he’s trying to do. Along with Oprah, he has the
most pronounced social conscience in the entertainment business, no small achievement.
But if The Monuments Men had been less
finger-wagging, had reached beyond Hollywood cliches and trusted the audience more,
it might have achieved the level that Clooney’s good intentions and the great art that Monuments Men saved both deserve.   

 

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