It’s 1944 and Clooney’s Harvard art conservator approaches President Roosevelt with a plan to save Europe’s great works of art falling into the hands of the retreating Germans. He’s given permission to round up a ragbag coterie of artists, art dealers and historians – Damon, Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Bob Balaban, and Downton’s Hugh Bonneville – who are handed a rifle, given basic training and set out to track down the priceless art the Nazis have stolen…
The Monuments Men has problems with needless sequences that have zero impact on the story: one typical scene has Dujardin and Goodman pinned down by sniper fire, which is included merely so a shot is fired in anger (it is a war movie after all) while a three-way stand-off between Murray, Balaban and a lost German soldier dribbles away to nothing. Murray and Balaban are presented as a comic duo but their antics are forced and similar problems inhibit the subplot romance between Paris-based Damon and Blanchett’s bookkeeper. They feel they belong to a bigger story, possibly a miniseries.
The episodic nature results in pacing issues. We’re told that the Germans will destroy all of their stolen art if Hitler dies – part of his Nero Decree - and that the Russians are fast approaching from the east, looking to get their hands on the art themselves. But this urgency doesn’t translate to the screen. There is no push, no ticking clock. Too much time is given over to justifying the mission through voiceover – is a painting worth a man’s life?
But it’s not all bad. Clooney aims for an easy-going atmosphere, mixing the Oceans Trilogy fun factor – ‘Isn’t it entertaining being in the presence of this cast?’ these movies seem to ask – with an old fashioned 40s caper and hits it dead on. The Monuments Men really picks up in the last half hour with Clooney waking the movie from its stupor - the team scramble to retrieve the last pieces of art from a blown mine just as the Russians reach the outskirts of the town. If only the rest of the movie was like that.