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Clooney’s ‘The Monument Men’ an artful footnote to history

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The Monuments Men

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“The Monument Men,” based on the true story of the hunt for art treasures looted by Nazi Germany before they can be destroyed by the Germans or confiscated by the Soviets, could easily have been an Alistair MacLean adaptation, like “The Guns of Navarone” or “Where Eagles Dare,” both of which were made into popular action movies in the sixties. But then it wouldn’t have been a George Clooney movie.

As an actor, writer, producer and director, Clooney has shown a marked tendency to shy away from obvious genre or franchise material, and that trait is on full display here. Though set during the final months of World War II (some of the story actually takes place at the Battle of the Bulge), Clooney isn’t doing “The Dirty Dozen.” In fact he actually passes up at least three opportunities for major action set pieces. There is some violence in the movie, and some characters do die, but Clooney, who directed, co-produced and co-wrote “The Monuments Men,” based on a non-fiction book by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter, isn’t making a commercial action/adventure vehicle. What audiences might not be expecting is that this is a gentle-natured character study at heart.

There is a wry structural homage to some of the big World War II adventure movies of the sixties, which generally opened with assembling a mismatched team of heroes. Here, art expert Frank Stokes (Clooney) is briefing FDR (Michael Dalton) about the need to rescue art treasures stolen by the Nazis before they’re destroyed. A team of art experts and historians is needed to identify the pieces, and the only ones who aren’t already fighting are too old to be drafted or 4F. In a recruiting-the-team sequence that also recalls “Ocean’s Eleven,” Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman, Jean Dujardin (Oscar-winner for “The Artist”), Hugh Bonneville, Bob Balaban and Dimitri Leonidas (“Centurion”) are recruited and put through Basic Training (sort of).

Once in France, now being liberated from Nazi occupation, Stoke’s team of middle-aged (and older) experts are hindered by a general lack of cooperation from their superiors in the field, and the distrust of Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), a French museum curator who’s been forced to work with the Germans, and has information no one else does about the whereabouts of some of the missing treasures. The script moves the characters into groups of two or three, and intercuts between separate but related subplots. The result is a languid, even leisurely story, with a distinctly European sensibility towards plotting. Clooney and co-screenwriter Grant Heslov, who also co-wrote Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” are not trying to make a conventional thriller. Clooney sometimes awkwardly juggles drama with frequent comic relief, as when Goodman and and Dujardin are pinned down by a sniper in a scene that initially evokes “Saving Private Ryan” before veering off into a distinctly unexpected direction.

Human decency is the story’s lynchpin, and the movie is almost defiantly unapologetically nostalgic. These men really care about the importance of art, not just as collector’s items or decorations, but as indispensable cultural artifacts which might be worth dying for. It’s notable that heroism here comes from men who don’t look like action stars, and are scared to death.

With a central cast of this size no one character is going to be dissected in depth. The acting is first rate nonetheless, with Bill Murray doing some of his finest work in a very quiet scene as he listens to a recorded Christmas greeting before the Battle of the Bulge. The scenes between John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, reteaming from “The Artist,” are lovely. The hoped-for chemistry between Damon and Blanchett never quite gels. Clooney has never insisted on being on-camera in every scene of anything he’s directed, although he does manage to give himself the best dialogue scene in the movie. Producer’s prerogative.

Clooney has already proven himself to be a talented, disciplined and self-assured director, eschewing “Look Ma I’m directing” flourishes. This also a very sharp production technically, with excellent photography by Phedon Papamichael, and generally good visual effects to provide ships, barrage balloons and period vistas. Alexandre Desplat’s jaunty, frequently deliberately ironic score, is occasionally disconcerting.

Cigarette smoking is, would be expected in a World War II movie, prevalent. There appears to be no product placement there, at least.

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