There is one moment in The Monuments Men that is as sweet and pleasing as a fresh cupcake. It has a charm that is no small thing in the making of movies. Let’s not spoil the moment by spelling it out, let’s just admit that it employs someone named Clooney. I am happy to say that now, and happier still holding on to its memory, for apart from that this is one of the most dreadful, smug, and incoherent films I have ever seen, and a travesty of its many large subjects.
There was an event known as World War II. You and I know that, more or less, though we may differ over when it started, or what its results were. The Monuments Men is wary of that public ignorance (and even the indifference behind it), so there are rapid history lessons to encourage us. Those wicked Germans were busy as hell during the war, but as well as eliminating peoples, conquering nations, collecting gold, and setting standards for beastliness, they were greedy for art (I believe they thought of it as Art). Like most earnest people fighting a war, they were easily confused. So they would sometimes steal great works of art and culture, and sometimes they would incinerate them. As a matter of fact, even empires without a war on their hands have sometimes been as muddled over art, let alone Art.
That’s how George Clooney decides what a cool fellow has to do. Yes, Clooney plays a “character” in this film, just as he co-produced it, co-wrote it, and directed it. There is even a moment when his wry, wistful fellow muses over his old life, when he would get a coffee and an onion bagel at a New York deli—it feels like chewy substance. But it’s just George, looking dapper but rather elderly in uniform and setting out to save the great works of plundered art because—after all, guys—isn’t that what this war is about? Or was the war fought to promote dumb movies?
Yes, there were other aspects of the war, but that doesn’t have to obscure the way a few learned men decided that maybe something had to be done (apart from the bombing of Monte Cassino) to protect some of that terrific Art, which the Nazis were either keeping for their own schlosses or for bonfires. A modest unit came into being, the Monuments Men, to set about that task. FDR’s cigarette holder waved its approval. (Was there more mileage, one wonders, in saving masterpieces than trying to rescue Jews?) And so, in the movie, it is not very long before George, John Goodman, Bob Balaban, and Bill Murray are trudging off a landing craft at Normandy mere weeks after D-Day. Matt Damon is also one of the boys, and he goes straight to Paris because of a running joke that he speaks excruciating French. There will be a few more chaps joining later on. But they are all guys—like guys in a 1944 movie—this is the one concession to period, for otherwise the antics of The Monuments Men convey zero sense of what those war years looked and felt like. The guys are a comic gang: Balaban and Murray are always at odds, until they are not; John Goodman is very large and droll; Matt Damon is getting larger, or beefy; and George is a quick pencil sketch of Clark Gable. But their hearts are into Art.
Something like these things happened. Thousands of pieces of art were plundered during the war. A few art experts in uniform did their best to help. But the chief thrust of their action began in the spring of 1945, a date that coincides with the end of hostilities in Europe. Sensibly so. Art sleuths are not really quick on their feet amid shifting lines of battle. Yet The Monuments Men has two of its guys killed in action as its members dart all over western Europe. The Maltese Falcons of this pursuit—the things that might really hook a Danny Ocean—are the Ghent altarpiece and a Michelangelo marble statue, Madonna and Child, that was filched from Bruges.
You get the picture—and so do the guys—in what is a shamelessly archaic and ruinously inept adventure film periodically pausing for solemn lectures on just what Art means to us all. The climax of the film is a “race against time” in which the guys attempt to save the golden oldies before the Soviets get to the salt mine where the art has been stored. The Soviets are depicted with unrelenting crudity and cliché (like the Germans, the French, the Brits and the Americans), and the shockingly trite score (by Alexandre Desplat) marks them as villains scarcely more ugly than the Nazis. Well, it was a dirty war and a lot of low blows were delivered. In truth the Soviets did their bit in “liberating” great art, and the Hermitage Museum speaks to their efforts. But why bother with that any more than you might wonder how an Italian sculpture “lives” in Bruges. And certainly don’t raise the matter of how, in some cases, Jewish art dealers in Europe were exploited by dealers and museums in the Free World in ways that helped set up what is now known as the “art market.” Art may be a very valuable thing but not always at auction house prices.
At last we have to turn to George Clooney. It’s easy enough to like George, and he leads the way in the attempt, even if sometimes—Up in the Air, notably—he has seemed aware of how close he is to a cipher. He began directing a while ago, with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, which is his boldest, most ingenious and unsettling film. Since then, the work has steadily deteriorated. But George is an entrepreneur, an Ocean in a small, incestuous sea. As such, he has produced or co-produced a parcel of films (The American, Argo, August: Osage County), often with Grant Heslov, who is co-writer and co-producer here—though the gestures toward writing and production are so vague it is hard to know how this clumsy collection of plot-holes, clichés and hand-on-heart piety has found a brief parking place on our screens.
There are good actors all through this film—Cate Blanchett has a turn as a French art bureaucrat—and the overall air of George getting together with a few friends to do good stuff. Except that the stuff is wretched beyond belief, and the notion has to be growing that George Clooney is a charming idiot. Or maybe I’m being generous on the charm.