It’s a bit of a gear-change, but ‘The Monuments Men’ is a case worth telling despite its narrow field. George Clooney’s fifth directorial feature takes an approach on a World War II tale with more light-hearted feet than we’re used to. Highlighting a unique U.S. army unit of seven in more their professional primes than youthful, these men head to Europe near the end of the war tasked to find and save art stolen from the Nazis. With focus turned towards the cultural risks of lost and destroyed art, the harshness of World War II on a wide scale is underplayed, and personal loss within the unit is pushed forward amid slightly over-comic tones. Serious acting figures make their sure mark within this adapted true story, an altogether deserving mission to account, especially the roles of school director of design Jean Claude Clermont (the wholesome Jean Dujardin), architect Richard Campbell (the modestly affecting funnyman Bill Murray), and Sam Epstein played by the budding Dimitri Leonidas. The cast also includes pros such as Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Matt Damon (a little too comfortable), Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, and George Clooney himself (yet we’re left craving he’d break the mold and transform beyond the familiar Clooney demeanor).
Although the very real concept of preserving history through art remains the central and sincere focus of ‘The Monuments Men,’ the wounds of war feel like hints here, handled too gently, as if we knew them already. True for many, but exploring the Jews’ seized belongings, finding gold teeth collected in a barrel, hearing of priests shot dead transporting paintings; it’s painful knowing these things actually happened but also fleeting on ‘The Monuments Men’ screen. Perhaps the piece felt most intensely is hearing of the pending mass destruction of art to occur when Germany falls, and seeing a mine’s contents of paintings and the like torched, making the men’s only partially successful mission all too real. More straightforward, task to task, with some natural comic relief and real personal strife to connect with, ‘The Monuments Men’ is really about the job at hand rather than the other multitude of war challenges. This is a “good but not great” situation, yet does put to mind things other than lives themselves necessary to hold on to.