DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. The story of art stolen by the Nazis is ongoing. Works Hitler took from Jewish and other collections are still turning up and being claimed by rightful owners. A new movie provides the back story. It's "The Monuments Men" based on the book by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter about the team authorized to find and protect everything from the Mona Lisa to Michelangelo's David.
George Clooney directed, co-wrote, and stars in the film which also features Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett. Film critic David Edelstein has this review.
DAVID EDELSTEIN, BYLINE: George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" tells the largely true story of a squad of art experts who near the end of World War II are assigned to protect masterworks of European society from Nazi theft and Allied bombardment. You'll notice those are two separate goals. The first is to stop the flood of art from occupied countries to Germany.
Hitler, you see, isn't just a genocidal maniac but also a pretentious esthete who wants to dictate taste, who sells off what he doesn't want to fund his war machine and seizes the rest for a prospective super museum in his hometown. "The Monuments Men's" other goal is to keep Allied commanders from shelling particular targets - a tough case to make to men wracked by the loss of troops and anxious to prevent further carnage.
Who, in such circumstances, cares about a bunch of paintings or statues? Who, indeed? One problem with "The Monuments Men" is that Clooney clearly wants to reach a mainstream American audience he thinks needs convincing art matters. Again and again his character, Frank Stokes, makes speeches to make sure we understand what's at stake. The big speech comes early when his team has traveled to Europe and dispersed among various countried.
A colleague, played by John Goodman, helps him set up a radio link to his brothers in arms and art.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE MONUMENTS MEN")
JOHN GOODMAN: (As Sgt. Walter Garfield) Monuments Men radio is about to go live. I hope we play music.
GEORGE CLOONEY: (As Lt. Frank Stokes) Calling London. Calling London and all the ships at sea.
GOODMAN: (As Sgt. Walter Garfield) We read you loud and clear.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: How far will this thing reach?
CLOONEY: (As Lt. Frank Stokes) We'll find out tomorrow.
GOODMAN: (As Sgt. Walter Garfield) Roger that.
CLOONEY: (As Lt. Frank Stokes) Are all the fellows there?
GOODMAN: (as Sgt. Walter Garfield) They are.
CLOONEY: (as Lt. Frank Stokes) All right. Listen up, fellows, because I think you should know the truth as I see it. This mission is never designed to succeed. If they were honest, they would tell us that. They would tell us with this many people dying who cares about art. They're wrong because it's exactly what we're fighting for, for our culture and for our way of life.
(as Lt. Frank Stokes) You can wipe out a generation of people, you can burn their homes to the ground and somehow they'll still come back. But if you destroy their achievements and their history, then it's like they never existed. That's what Hitler wants. And it's the one thing we simply can't allow.
EDELSTEIN: That's Clooney the politician and "The Monuments Men" comes off as more of a, well, monument than a vital work of art. It's engaging but a little blah, a little formulaic. It begins with a round-up-the-team sequence that's only charming because of who the actors are. Matt Damon is plucked from a ladder as he works on a church ceiling and architect Bill Murray from leading a skyscraper tour.
Alcoholic curator Hugh Bonneville gets offered a chance to come back from disgrace and redeem himself - heartwarmingly. Jean Dujardin of "The Artist" is a Frenchman who's there because he knows the territory. Bob Balaban is the ultra-serious specialist who trades witless insults with Murray. It's an all-star cast in which the stars are all low wattage.
There's only one embarrassing subplot. It features Cate Blanchett as a prim, bespectacled French curator who secretly plots against a piggy SS man preparing trainloads of art for their Furher's proposed uber-museum. Earnest Damon has to prove to her he's not rounding up paintings to ship back to America and when she's satisfied his aim is art for art's sake, she lets down her hair and becomes a real woman. Sacrebleu!
Clooney must've been eager, after helping to shape such acid anti-imperialist movies as "Syriana" to make a hopeful, positive war picture with a lighthearted marching drum and woodwind score but he plays everything so safe. He doesn't linger on the contrast between timeless masterpieces and the chaos and obscenity of war. He doesn't even linger on the masterpieces themselves - you barely see them.
Worse, he panders to the audience. When the Monuments Men come up against snipers and murderous Nazis commandants, Stokes announces to his men that they finally earned the right to wear their uniforms. But if they need to take bullets to prove they're real soldiers, what are all those high flown speeches about preserving civilization?
The scale of the Nazi plunder is laid out better in the 2006 documentary "The Rape of Europa" and the story is more thrillingly evoked in John Frankenheimer's 1964 "The Train" featuring Paul Scofield as an art obsessed Nazi and Burt Lancaster as the stationmaster bent on keeping France's masterworks from reaching Germany.
But "The Monuments Men" isn't terrible. Coming in the wake of wars that have been far more morally confusing it's an earnest tribute to decency, to good taste. The movie could've been called "The Dainty Dozen."
BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York Magazine. He reviewed "The Monuments Men," the new George Clooney movie.