"The Monuments Men" opens with a group of Belgian priests hurriedly dismantling an altarpiece by Jan van Ghent, their intent to secret it away before the Nazis arrived. As much of Europe knew, Hitler's plan was to build a vast monument to himself, to include what was to be known as the Fuhrer Museum, in which he would display all of those major works of art stolen from public and private collections throughout Europe. The number of pieces, the sheer magnitude purloined was astonishing.
However, as the war was drawing to a close and the Nazis were retreating toward Berlin, they were given a scorched-earth directive from Hitler: Raze all that was left behind, including the art.
FDR was convinced to form what was known as the U.S. Army's Monuments Fine Arts and Archives Program, its mission to head to the front immediately and attempt to find and save as much of Europe's art heritage as could be found, rescued not only from the Germans, but from the Russians, who were intent on keeping what they could locate as part of what they considered war reparations.
These recruited scholars were not trained soldiers, but out-of-shape citizen-soldiers in the truest sense. The group included Frank Stokes (George Clooney), art historian; James Granger (Matt Damon), art-restoration expert; Walter Garfield (John Goodman), architect; Richard Campell (Bill Murray), sculptor; and, eventually, Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), curator at Paris' Jeu De Paume Museum.
At first blush, it is easy to see how Clooney, the film's writer and director, would see a compelling story rife with urgency and drama. The trailer is filled with promise; however, unexpectedly, the story flatlines, as if Clooney couldn't quite decide whether he was making a breezy film (not unlike the buddy humor prevalent in his "Oceans 11") or a deeply serious film, one that is a race against ultimate evil.
One of the script's inherent problems is that the stakes are not about life and death — though the Monuments Men are in some danger. And so the question posed by the film is asked by FDR as he listens to Stokes' proposed plan: Is a piece of art, no matter its stunning import, worth the life of one human being? Of course, Stokes argues, the art in question represents the very best expressions of our civilization and therefore must not be allowed to be destroyed.
Know that "The Monuments Men" is not Clint Eastwood's "Kelly's Heroes," nor is it "The Dirty Dozen." Certainly not "Saving Private Ryan." Perhaps because the narrative has few direct confrontations between the Nazis and the Americans, it lacks real tension; however, it is difficult to imagine how the story might have been structured in a different way.
Nevertheless, the film needed a fully realized antagonist. There is a Nazi officer, charged with destroying as many masterpieces as possible before the war concludes. But he is a mere shadow, enigmatic, and there is no dialogue that explains his commitment to his task.
As an aside, the Fine Arts and Archives unit was initiated in 1943 and did not disband until 1951. During that time, some 350 men and women did all that they could to find, restore and return the enormous cache of art that had been hidden by the Germans in salt and copper mines, as well as castles throughout Europe.