Throughout World War II, the Nazi regime looted a massive quantity of art from all over Europe, then resolved to destroy this booty once their makeshift empire crumbled. As the war drew to a close, "trophy brigades" from the advancing Russian army claimed a good portion of the remnants as spoils, viewing it as compensation for their massive military sacrifices. Other Allied nations engaged in similar, if less widespread, campaigns of plunder, while individual soldiers often looted at will. Now the true story of one of the world's greatest treasure hunts gets the soft-pedal prestige treatment in George Clooney's The Monuments Men, which reduces a big, messy maelstrom of theft and uncertainty down to a digestible, faintly appetizing mush.
In Clooney and Grant Heslov's streamlined version of the story, the mission to save Europe's artistic relics was a snazzy bit of heroism by an unlikely crew of aesthetes, which now offers an occasion for reflective contemplation about art's place and purpose in our modern world. Recruited by the American government to salvage masterpieces and protect cultural heritage, preservationist Frank Stokes (Clooney) scrapes together a ragtag bunch of decidedly non-military personnel: a fragile museum director (Matt Damon), a scruffy sculptor (John Goodman), a ferrety historian (Bob Balaban), a doofy architect (Bill Murray), among others. These men get introduced via a customary montage sequence, but it's telling that this one devotes scant time to differentiating or otherwise personalizing them, boiling each down to a shorthand defining detail. The rest of the film keeps up the same lackadaisical attitude toward characterization, leaving us with a crew of anonymous types, each barely distinguishable from the others.
There are good things about The Monuments Men, from its handsome period detail and impressive cast to its brains-over-brawn approach to combat, but these individual elements are left adrift in a slack, formless plot. The film feels impressively old-fashioned in a sense, reviving the dormant tradition of the wartime male weepie, the sort of hard-edged story muscled to tremendous heights by John Ford, William Wellman, and Howard Hawks, but in this case the guts-and-glory trappings only end up distracting from the comedy, and the film lacks the confidence to fully commit to melodrama. Clooney's directorial efforts have always struggled to reconcile a penchant for rakish theatrics with a desire for gravity, and here a potentially jaunty heist-in-reverse tale gets crushed by the massive weight of history's most immense, concentrated tragedy. Meanwhile, so much energy is consumed by the vagaries of maintaining the "based on a true story" tag, faithfully reimagining Robert M. Edsel's nonfiction account, that the narrative never develops beyond a detached series of amusing anecdotes.
So while The Monuments Men needs its historical framework to exist, its potential buoyancy is dissipated by the task of telling such a complex story in an easily palatable manner. It at least grapples with the realities of its period rather than exploiting them, but in doing so wastes time with unnecessary subplots and the repeated underlining of its themes. What results is a flat fable of populist heroes battling the evils of exclusionary greed, with Hitler as the ultimate Grinch, a failed artist who won't let anyone else enjoy art. The extensive, hand-wringing effort to adjust the tone at just the right mixture of reverence and derring-do prevents the complete development of either; a halfway comic scene involving an unexploded landmine can't overcome the lingering effect of the preceding one concerning a barrel full of gold teeth extracted from Nazi victims. The struggle to shape this material into something both fun and affecting may make this damaged film even more likeable, but it doesn't make it much of a movie.