We tend to see George Clooney as a heartthrob, a charmer, the Cary Grant of his generation. Yet the actor shies away from these classifications in his work, especially in films he directs. 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 are particularly flashy or romantic.
What connects them is their incalculable 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 of duty and professional tenacity still remains in this grizzled scholar who lobbies President Roosevelt for the chance to salvage artifacts stolen by Hitler during WWII's waning years.
Stylistically simple and ideologically frank, Monuments is refreshingly old-fashioned. Some might even call it naïve, depicting a horrific conflict that claimed millions of lives through a somewhat rosy lens. Still, when you consider that it takes the perspective of older, non-military academics tasked to trounce around war-torn Europe tracking Hitler's all-encompassing art heist, this approach makes more sense.
As Stokes and his ragtag crew of architects, artists and curators maneuver the bloody landscape of France and Germany, Monuments 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.
Still, Stokes and fellow curator James Granger (Matt Damon) experience the deep cut 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 fact is always juxtaposed with the overall importance of their operation, which sometimes gives Monuments 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 (Jean Dujardin) that they've walked into 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, Monuments is often sluggish and frustrating. Its choppy pacing undercuts the performances, 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. The recurring joke about Granger's terrible French runs coarse immediately.
While his weary patriot Stokes is 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, and equally ineffective bits of action and comedy. Connecting it all is a streamlined view of history that tends to favor the victory's comfort over trauma's complexity. It's a mystery why Clooney decides to paint these themes as mutually exclusive.