The Monuments Men is a true story, based on a book of the same title, written by Robert M. Edsel and subtitled Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History. No exaggeration that.
It is the story of scholar soldiers, sent on a daunting mission: to save the world’s great art treasures from Adolph Hitler. His Nazi minions had stockpiled looted artworks in salt mines and other depositories and eventually began to destroy them as their defeated armies retreated. Many of the treasures had been stolen from the collectors who were victims of the Holocaust.
Launched by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the special art-rescue squad is commanded by a determined leader (George Clooney, who also directed the movie). He searches Germany for the hidden caches. One squad member in Paris (Matt Damon) prys secrets from a French Resistance spy (Cate Blanchett). Additional squad members are played by Bill Murray, John Goodman, and other accomplished actors who—alas—largely seem to play themselves and walk through their roles. One sometimes thinks, “Once more, with feeling.”
Still, there are many memorable scenes—some funny, some poignant, none more so than the discovery of a barrel filled with gold teeth taken from death-camp victims. One tragicomical scene involves the two sons of one suspected Nazi art thief. When an art hunter sarcastically says, “Heil Hitler,” the little boys snap to attention and repeat with scary enthusiasm, “Heil Hitler!” Such scenes—together with the deaths of two squad members—provide relief from slogging passages and help redeem the story.
Despite its surprising shortfall of emotional intensity, this film nevertheless tells its fascinating historical story in watchable fashion. Those who care about humanity’s legacy of fine art—and I hope it is everyone reading this—will not regret their time spent in watching The Monuments Men. It is, often despite itself, inspiring.
Rating: Three wooden nickels (out of four)