"The Monuments Men" tests the proposition that an appealing cast can put almost any script across. Near the start of this World War II drama about Yanks searching for art stolen by the Germans, star George Clooney asks, "Who will make sure that the statue of David is still standing and the Mona Lisa is still smiling?" and the audience thinks, "Why you, George, and your merry band of character actors playing over-the-hill soldiers, and us, if we can tag along too." By the midway point, that rah-rah sentiment has downshifted to, "You guys, I guess—and where are we now?" By the end, it's something like, "Wake me when you find that statue you're always talking about."
That's a harsh assessment of a film whose heart is in the right place, but heart alone does not a good film make. Directed by Clooney from a script he wrote with his regular filmmaking partner Grant Heslov, "The Monuments Men" is a throwback to a very specific type of World War II adventure picture: a star-studded adventure made between ten and 20 years after the war's end. Such films were aimed at a morally exhausted U.S. audience that wanted to be congratulated for its role in ending tyranny—however large or small or nonexistent it might have been—but that also wished to be entertained, preferably with a caper, a romance, and knowing jokes about bureaucrats and regulations.
Clooney and Heslov's film offers all these elements, plus an alternately rousing and lyrical score by Alexandre Desplat that evokes "Bridge on the River Kwai" and "The Great Escape." (Brass, kettle drums, whistling.) As the movie sends Clooney, Matt Damon, Bob Balaban, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Hugh Bonneville and Jean Dujardin—playing art historians or art experts of one kind or another—in search of German-pilfered paintings and statuary, it adds something else as well: an appreciation of how hard it is to get people to care about art when cities have been reduced to rubble and whole populations wiped out.
The movie's best quality is its willingness to be real about the heroes' prospects and illustrate how hard it is to make a moral or philosophical case for their mission when millions have already died. When a field officer informs Clooney's Frank Stokes that even though a particular church contains significant art, they'll still bomb it if Germans decide to use it as a hiding place, you understand in practical terms where he's coming from, because the lead-up to this conversation took you to the beach at Normandy, post-D-Day, then past many bombed-out cityscapes. "The Monuments Men" presents its heroes as mice skittering through the margins of history, trying not to get stepped on. They're mostly too old or out-of-shape to be effective soldiers, and they're aware that the combat troops they pass in the field would support their mission only to the point where they had to choose between saving a Picasso and getting shot.