Its easy to be seduced by THE MONUMENT MENs swagger. Directed and co-written by co-star George Clooney, it is as much a tribute to the golden age of Hollywood filmmaking as it is to the brave men who thought that art and culture was worth defending with their lives. It is manipulative, it is at times painfully sentimental, but it is also rife with slick dialogue and the undeniable, high-wattage star power of its cast.
Inspired by a true story, without being strictly bound by the specifics, it begins as World War II is winding down. Frank Stokes (Clooney) has successfully lobbied President Roosevelt to create a squad of the eponymous men to go to Europe and save what it left of Western art and culture. Florence has been ravaged by the Nazis. A monastery with priceless relics has been bombed by the Allies. In short order, and in snappy cinematic style, Stokes has put together his team of specialists who have, until then, been either too old or somehow medically unfit to get into the war. With the easy bravado of heroes sure of their cause, they go forth to protect the artifacts of Western Culture, and return to its rightful owners the art stolen by Hitler for his proposed super-museum.
There is an architect (Billy Murray), and sculptor (John Goodman), a collector (Bob Balaban), a French artist (Jean Dujardin), a British connoisseur (Hugh Bonneville), and a curator from New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art (Matt Damon). There are hijinks and heartbreaks, last-minute escapes and a priceless object that becomes the McGuffin of the piece that the team most wants to recover. Goodman is Goodman, Bonneville is the essence of the British stiff upper lip, while Clooney and Dujardin duel for the title of most charismatic. Damon is boyishly charming in his delicate pas de deux with Cate Blancetts poised despair as a French woman shot at by Germans, arrested by the Allies, and unwilling to trust anyone with what she knows about where the art has gone. Its Murray and Balaban, though, who steal the film. Balaban the master of quietly petulant exasperation, and Murray brining a level of sophistication that never ceases to amaze and delight. His is a detached irony that is palpably a front for its polar opposite. He is an amalgam of jest and profundity that is like no one else, and from anyone else would be a hopeless morass of unreconciled moods.
There is a lot of history in MONUMENTS MEN, but it is nicely integrated into the dialogue, with the characters commenting on the latest revelations with the appropriate shock or delight. Also nicely done is the issue of the Holocaust. There are no pictures of camps, nor emaciated corpses of their victims stacked like cordwood. There are whispers, and the character of Sam (Dmitri Leonides) the 19-year-old soldier from New Jersey by way of Germany. Hitler himself, the subject of much discussion, of course, makes his appearance only as a shadow in the corner surveying the model of his proposed supercity. As a metaphor for evil and hubris combined, it is superb.
Clooney is no stranger to issue films. SYRIANA and GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK both troved the thorny issue of doing what is right in a world that is at best morally ambiguous. With MONUMENTS MEN he presents good guys and bad buys in stark clarity. The only question is the one that is posed throughout the film, is any piece of art worth a mans life? There are heartfelt speeches, on delivered in the warm glow of a campfire that is hopelessly cliché, but, and this is important, directed with a cinematic elegance that is pure Hollywood. Without question, Clooney knows how to tell a story that grabs the audience with its visual acuity. For all the lapses in plotting, including an interlude at a field hospital where doctors work as a melancholy Christmas carol plays over the PA system, for all the speeches that fall a hair on the right side of hackneyed, Clooney makes his point about the importance of art, and our need for it, with one silent scene that evoked gasps in both the press screening and the public screening I attended. In it the camera lingers on a Renaissance painting of a proud, perhaps slightly melancholy gentleman of means. He gazes out at us as flames begin to make the oil of which he is made bubble, crack, and blacken into nothingness. That reaction sums up the argument for saving art as cogently as anything else that has or will transpire in the running time.
It is the moments like that, as well as the well-played quips and the pure delight of rooting for heroes,that makes MONUMENTS MEN worth seeing for all its flaws. Its a crowd pleaser of the first order,that is respectful of its subject, and just as wonder-struck by it as we are.