We tend to see George Clooney as a heartthrob, a charmer, the Cary Grant of his generation. Yet he consistently shies away from these classifications in his work. This is especially true in the films Clooney directs himself. He plays an ice-cold CIA handler in Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, a levelheaded radio producer in Good Night and Good Luck, a screwy footballer in Leatherheads and a seedy politician in The Ides of March. None of these characters strikes me as particularly flashy or romantic.
What connects them is their drive to make a difference, even if that ambition is eventually warped by greed, arrogance and deceit. No such nefariousness exists in Frank Stokes, the noble art historian Clooney plays in his earnest new war film, The Monuments Men. However, an overwhelming sense duty and professional tenacity still remains in this grizzled scholar, who lobbies President Roosevelt for the chance to salvage paintings, statues and artifacts stolen by Hitler during the waning years of World War II.
Stylistically simple and ideologically frank, The Monuments Men is refreshingly old-fashioned; some might even call it naïve, depicting through a rosy lens a horrific conflict that claimed millions of lives. Still, when you consider that the film takes the perspective of older, non-military academics tasked to trounce around Europe, tracking Hitler's all-encompassing art heist, this approach makes more sense.
As Stokes and his rag-tag crew of architects, artists and curators negotiate the bloody landscape of France and Germany, The Monuments Men becomes unabashedly concerned with the social and historical ramifications of failing one's mission. Entire scenes are dedicated to sifting through rubble, searching crates and tracking troop movements to distinguish the location of classic art pieces like Michelangelo's "Madonna of Bruges" sculpture and the Ghent Altarpiece.
That doesn't mean Stokes and curator James Granger (Matt Damon) don't experience the deep loss of losing men along the way. While it's no Saving Private Ryan, Clooney's film understands that timing and circumstance can strip away a life in a single moment. This is always juxtaposed with the overall importance of their operation, which sometimes gives The Monuments Men a turgid righteousness that does its quieter scenes a disservice.
Think of the moment when Bob Balaban's Napoleon-like spitfire plays a very personal recording of "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" over the loudspeaker for Bill Murray's winsome smart-ass in the middle of the Battle of the Bulge. Or when John Goodman's hulking sculptor tries to warn his French compatriot played by Jean Dujardin that they've accidentally walked into the middle of an ambush. Exchanges like these work so well because they avoid thematic preaching and embrace the poetry and heartache of circumstance.
Yet, for all its pleasures, The Monuments Men— which opens Friday, Feb. 7—is sometimes a sluggish and frustrating throwback. Its choppy pacing undercuts the virtues of each performance, attempting to capture months of story in a single edit. The subplot between Granger and a blustery French femme (Cate Blanchett) is tedious, standing at odds with the "men on a mission" genre Clooney wants so badly to embrace. And then there's the recurring joke about Granger's terrible French that runs its course almost immediately.
While his weary patriot Stokes is perpetually torn between personal feelings and civic intention, Clooney the director seems equally flummoxed by the merging of genres and tones. There are effective dark moments, like when Hitler's alone, looking over his massive model for the planned Führer Museum, and equally ineffective bits of action and comedy. Connecting it all is a streamlined view of history that tends to favor the comfort of victory over the complexity of trauma. It's a mystery why Clooney, ever a student of the Greatest Generation, decides to paint these themes as mutually exclusive.