Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The war of art

Real-life story of soldiers fighting to protect precious artifacts far from a masterpiece

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If men and women are willing to die for their country, it follows that some men and women might be willing to die -- or at least put themselves in harm's way -- for the sake of their culture.

From that notion, George Clooney presents an unsung chapter of the Second World War, detailing the heroics of a group of art experts assembled by President Roosevelt to find great works stolen by the Nazis, or to protect art and architecture from the devastation wrought by either side of the conflict.

Clooney directed and co-wrote the screenplay of the non-fiction book The Monuments Men (with Grant Heslov) and also stars as Frank Stokes, an American art academic whose concern for important cultural artifacts compelled him to put on a uniform.

In a realm where everybody talks the talk, Stokes assembles some unlikely men willing to walk the walk when it comes to protecting precious art from the voracious grasp of Hitler's minions. (The Artsy Dozen? A Few Good Nerds?) They include Bill Murray as a sardonic New York architect, Bob Balaban as an art expert chafing under the indignity of being ranked "private," and John Goodman as a guy who looks like he might be more at home managing a brewery than scrutinizing a Bruegel.

In the more mainstream war movie, every character has his own area of expertise, such as the demolitions expert, the ladies' man, or the crack shot. In this movie, every character's expertise is maddeningly non-specific.

Matt Damon's character might qualify as a ladies' man, given that his character's assignment includes wringing information from a recalcitrant Frenchwoman (Cate Blanchett) who may know the destination of a cache of art stolen from a host of Parisian private collections. But he's not much of a seducer -- he would prefer to remain faithful to his wife. So... imagine if James Bond were a Mormon.

Clooney is obliged to acknowledge that this wasn't entirely an American project and so he also gives us Jean Dujardin (The Artist) as a French enlistee and Hugh Bonneville (Downton Abbey) as a disgraced British aristocrat looking for redemption.

It all carries the promise of a rousing historic adventure. It doesn't quite deliver that, however.

The screenplay feels a few drafts short of completion. It's too scattered to get any real momentum, and some relationships -- such as the needling banter between Murray and Balaban -- doesn't really enrich the story or reflect the film's themes in any coherent way.

Clooney is a little too invested in the theme of the film to acknowledge that while the mission is admirable, there must have been a few absurd moments when the assignment was met with shock and disbelief from some commanders more concerned with the lives of their men than the historic value of a French church vestry housing a German sniper.

In his previous directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney celebrated a lone liberal news reporter who stood his ground against the paranoia and hysteria of the Red Scare.

This film is in the same template, in that it feels more like a George Clooney position paper than the ripping yarn it should be.

It's a pity. The liberal arts education presumably enjoyed by this movie's heroes is besmirched as never before in the U.S., and could use a champion just now.

Clooney, distracted by how the light of art appreciation reflects on him, is apparently not it.

randall.king@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 7, 2014 D1

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