I will never be as upset about a war ending as I was at the end of “The Monuments Men.” As soon as George Clooney’s latest actor-director film peaked, World War II ended and so too did the movie. “The Monuments Men” is a star-studded affair about a small platoon tasked to rescue priceless pieces of art and return them to their owners. Clooney’s film is a swift art education and nicely a different tone than the usual war movie. The platoon’s mission is designed to fail, which is nothing new, but the men are outcasts on base and don’t receive much trained military support, except from a young German-speaking American soldier named Sam Epstein, played by Dimitri Leonidas. Sam’s learning on the go, in some cases, like some of the old farts in the platoon and probably witnesses his first death, holding the hand of a soldier who Sam and Clooney’s Frank Frank Stokes saved and brought to the medical tent. Sam grows up fast in that tent, learning the difference between what the doctor says in front of the patient and away from him.
Others of the platoon have these awakening moments in the film as well, which provides important background and motivation to these characters. Stokes is particularly motivated after the platoon’s first fallen soldier, Donald Jeffries. Walter Garfield, played by John Goodman, fights in honor of Jean Claude Clermont. Also, Richard Campbell, a Chicago architect played by Bill Murray, and Preston Savitz, played by Bob Balaban, are shaded by the home front, receiving care packages on base. Campbell’s is record of his family signing a Christmas song, which is an especially emotional moment and an important time keeper.
Matt Damon’s James Granger is in Paris for much of the film, searching for clues from his French friends. There, he meets Claire Simone, played by Cate Blanchett, a somewhat untrusting but proud woman and passionate art historian. Simone is a fantastic character in this movie about men. She is subtly sexy, but has such a strong voice. She’s fierce, as seen early in the film when she spits in Viktor Stahl’s champagne glass.
Stahl is a traitor and his days of stealing saved art come to a screeching halt when Campbell and Savitz wonder into his farm house, looking for help finding the stolen art. This is both Murray and Balaban’s best scene, especially Balaban, who catches Stahl in a lie that all of the paints on his walls are copies. It’s scenes like the one in the farm house and the interrogation between Stokes and a captured German lieutenant, after the war, that make for the film’s heightened moments of excellence. Unfortunately, “The Monuments Men” comes with poor timing. It’s no secret that the war is coming to a close from the moment this platoon enters basic training, so Stokes and the gang are in a race against time, parallel to the final reconnaissance mission.
“The Monuments Men” isn’t a film loaded with loud battle sequences or inspirational speeches and, importantly, it doesn’t try to be. Granger may step on a dud land mine every so often, but this film isn’t going to garner respect for its visual effects. It succeeds in knowing itself.
“The Monuments Men”: ★★1/2