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The art of war: Clooney’s Monuments Men on the front lines

by Mark Burger

It’s easy to see what drew George Clooney to making The Monuments Men, the screen adaptation of Robert M. Edsel’s non-fiction best-seller, on which Clooney serves as writer/producer (with long-time collaborator Grant Heslov) and director/star.

The story, set during the last years of World War II, offers a laudatory tribute to the Greatest Generation, and the format offers Clooney the opportunity to lead a talented ensemble cast in an entertaining, engaging outing that occasionally recalls Clooney’s Ocean’s Eleven romps, although the subject matter in The Monuments Men is a bit more dramatically substantive.

Clooney has surrounded himself with friends and familiar faces, including Matt Damon (the Ocean trilogy), Cate Blanchett (The Good German), John Goodman (O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and even Jean Dujardin, who bested Clooney (in The Descendants) for the Best Actor Oscar in 2011 (in The Artist). Rounding out a fairly irresistible cast are Bill Murray, Bob Balaban and Hugh Bonneville. As director, Clooney gives them all their moments to shine — and that’s enough to make the movie worthwhile.

Frank Stokes (Clooney) is a middle-aged art expert recruited by the US Army to locate and “repatriate” Europe’s art treasures, which have been pillaged and stockpiled by Adolf Hitler throughout the war, he of course being a former painter himself and something of an aesthete. To this end, Stokes himself recruits various art historians and museum curators to join his “Monuments Men” team. These aren’t professional soldiers, but they suddenly find themselves thrust into the middle of World War II. Although the eventual outcome of the story is never really in doubt, the individual fates of these unlikely soldiers are sometimes uncertain.

As the tides of war swing in favor of the Allies, Der Fuhrer orders the art destroyed, thereby accelerating the Monuments Men mission. Not only must Stokes and his team outwit the Nazis and outfox the Russians (who want the art for themselves), but they’re also frequently compelled to circumvent their own military protocol every step of the way.

Clooney directs The Monuments Men in old-fashioned, sometimes leisurely fashion — replete with periodic patriotic speeches that reiterate the mission at hand — and it’s clear he’s enamored with the story and the period. The narrative could have been tightened and somewhat compressed, but there are some lovely moments along the way, as well as a few tense and melancholy ones. Murray and Balaban supply most of the laughs, while Cate Blanchett — who, let’s face it, can do no wrong — plays the unit’s “French connection,” a Parisian museum curator who has extensive knowledge of the artwork stolen by the Nazis. Through it all, the cast is great company. They provide the might and muscle of The Monuments Men.

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