A certain kind of World War II movie template never has gone out of style and probably never will: A commanding officer rounds up unrelated guys from diverse backgrounds, sends them on a dangerous mission and watches them bond into a unit of selfless comrades.
Director George Clooney, working from a script he wrote with Grant Heslov, reworks that formula in “The Monuments Men,” but with a twist. The squad assembled by Lt. Frank Stokes consists mostly of balding, bespectacled art historians and architects assigned to track artwork the Nazis have looted from occupied lands.
The Germans did indeed plunder paintings and sculptures stolen from Jewish dealers or patrons, Catholic churches and museums of all kinds. Some went into the private collections of Hermann Goering or other officials; more were destined for a massive museum Adolf Hitler planned to open in Linz, Austria, once the Third Reich had been established.
The great John Frankenheimer film “The Train” explored this theme best in 1964, with Burt Lancaster as a French Resistance fighter trying to stop a train full of art stolen by German general Paul Scofield. Clooney and Heslov frame their tale less as an action movie and more as a feat of detection.
Stokes (Clooney) and his team pursue everything from a Michelangelo madonna and child to “Adoration of the Mystic Lamb,” a 15th-century altarpiece for a Belgian church. They race against time in the waning days of the war, because they will lack military authority after the Germans surrender; against the Russians, who plan to keep every piece they find as reparations for millions of dead soldiers; and against Hitler’s “Nero Decree,” which orders that German possessions should be destroyed in the event of defeat, rather than falling into enemy hands.
They’re a motley crew: a Metropolitan Museum curator (Matt Damon), a Chicago architect (Bill Murray), a New Jersey private who speaks fluent German (Dimitri Leonidas) and assorted knowledgeable folks (Bob Balaban, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin, John Goodman).
The writing can be hokey. A former alcoholic, who has sobered up to help this effort, sends a letter home: “In this place so full of death, I have never felt so intensely alive.” An encounter with a lone, frightened enemy soldier can be settled peacefully with American cigarettes and approving mutters of “John Wayne” all around. Director Clooney also makes the last-second, race-against-time climax improbably melodramatic.
Yet he paces scenes well, balances everyone’s screen time and makes good use of his ensemble cast. If you’re worried that the re-teaming of Clooney and Cate Blanchett in a World War II movie signals something like “The Good German,” fear not: She’s better here, playing a French art historian who worries the Americans will “rescue” the art in order to steal it for their own country.
The subject remains topical, seven decades later. Authorities in Munich seized 1,500 artworks from Cornelius Gurlitt in 2012; he’s the son of a dealer who bought art from Third Reich officials, and more than 200 of those pieces had “vanished” after the Nazis confiscated them.
Some viewers will agree with the officer who refuses to lend Stokes an armed guard for a trip into occupied territory; he argues that no painting or statue could be worth one human life. But the movie makes a good case in the other direction: If someone has to die to keep a Michelangelo masterpiece intact and available to everybody, he has done more for western civilization that most of us could hope to do.