This is the way the world ends, or starts to end, in George Clooney’s “The Monuments Men”: with a bang. In the film’s opening scenes, Hubert and Jan van Eyck’s “Ghent Altarpiece” is loudly dismantled, panel by panel, and prepared—too late, though—for a secret hiding place. The clock is ticking for its fellow masterpieces. World War II is raging and Hitler, an unpromising art student before he became Der Führer, fancies himself a collector. Under his command, the Nazis begin another reign of terror, this one centered on churches, museums and private collections. Priceless works of art are stolen and carted off to Germany, and it’s up to a ragtag team of art historians to get them back.
Bringing this team to life are Clooney and some A-list companions, including Matt Damon, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin, Billy Murray, and Hugh Bonneville (“Downton Abbey”). It’s sort of like “Ocean’s 11,” if you substituted Paris for Vegas and the prize of a Michelangelo instead of a casino. The film, based on Robert M. Edsel’s book, The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History, is Clooney’s well-paced, thoughtful take on the quest to save Europe’s cultural heritage from annihilation.
Yes, this is a war movie, but anyone expecting “Saving Private Ryan” with Great Masters paintings will be sorely disappointed—as well they should be. Art is quiet and contemplative; it is not a thing of hurried action, and Clooney recognizes that. He does not roll out the big guns in this picture (when the Monuments crew arrives in Normandy, in fact, the beach that hosted the D-Day slaughter is peaceful.) Instead, Clooney raises questions about the value of art in a world gone mad, and long before the credits roll, the movie’s point is obvious: a people’s achievements are just as worthy of rescue as the people themselves.
The performances are mostly well-delivered, including a prickly turn by Cate Blanchett as a French museum employee who assists the Monuments Men. Although the film is not a perfect historical tale, it is a human one, and that’s what makes it interesting. Cranky gripes about how the art itself doesn’t get enough screen time should be dismissed: it’s been stolen, after all, and the Men spend most of their time trying to get it back. Besides, if you really want to see the Ghent Altarpiece, why would you go to the movies to do it? You need only go to Belgium. The Altarpiece was returned to its rightful home thanks to the men—and the mission—Clooney and crew portray with such quiet dignity.