From left, Dimitri Leonidas, John Goodman, George Clooney, Matt Damon and Bob Balaban in "The Monuments Men."
By Barry Paris / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
One of the most chilling manifestations of Adolf Hitler's insanity was his two-part plan for the great European art treasures looted from all over the continent: (1) He'd put them on display in The Fuhrer Museum (10 times bigger than the Louvre) to be built in his hometown of Linz. Or, in the event of his death or the Nazis' defeat: (2) Everything was to be destroyed.
No 1,000-year Third Reich in the future? No 1,000-year monuments of Western Civilization from the past: If Hitler couldn't have it, nobody would.
Starring: George Clooney, Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, Cate Blanchett, Dimitri Leonidas, Hugh Bonneville, Jean Dujardin.
Rating: PG-13 for images of war violence.
George Clooney's "The Monuments Men" is an ambitious action drama based on the true story of a truly great treasure hunt: Toward the end of World War II, an unlikely platoon of decidedly noncombatant museum curators and art historians is recruited to find, rescue and return Europe's greatest artistic masterpieces to their rightful owners.
It's a race against time and a mission (nearly) impossible, considering that the art is hidden way behind enemy lines and that the quality and quantity of it are staggering -- some 3 million paintings and sculptures, including van Eyck's Ghent altarpieces (1432), da Vinci's "Lady With an Ermine" (1490), Michelangelo's Bruges "Madonna and Child" (1504) and Vermeer's "Astronomer" (1668).
They've been warehoused in a dozen different old salt and copper mines, many of them booby-trapped to prevent just such a rescue as the American team has in mind. And then, finally -- just when you think the Nazis are done and it's safe to get back in the water -- the Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!
Gotta get there before the Russkies do so first, and ferret it all off to the Hermitage in Leningrad.
The performances are excellent. Sad sack John Goodman and hangdog Bill Murray provide moving portrayals of their respective characters, with just enough -- not too much -- comic nuance. The running gag of Matt Damon's bad French (he thinks he speaks it fluently) works nicely. Hugh Bonneville (of "Downton Abbey" fame) has wonderfully soulful moments before and during his demise trying to save the "Madonna and Child" sculpture in Bruges. Bob Balaban as the nerdy, bespectacled, quietly sly expert-sleuth among them does a most delightful job.
Cate Blanchett is terrific as the Parisian museum curator whose crucial assistance saved 60,000 pieces. Dimitri Leonidas' beautiful eyes and face work wonders throughout the film (he's the monument team's driver). As head of that team, Mr. Clooney the actor is as believably restrained and effective as always.
Mr. Clooney the director, on the other hand, is not so effective. He found just the right touch at the helm of "Good Night, and Good Luck," but never quite does so here, hindered by a simplistic, overly didactic script that tends to Hollywoodize the epic proceedings. In actual fact, there were not just seven but some 400 members of FDR's fabulous monuments team, and they rarely -- if ever -- saw each other in the harrowing field operations.
But if this sentimental cinematic result fails to fulfill its grand ambitions, it is still engaging, enlightening and ultimately, in many ways, satisfying.
You think it just sounds like a nice history lesson, irrelevant to the present?
Think again. Just eight weeks ago, on Dec. 13, German police broke into the Munich flat of Cornelius Gurlitt, son of the infamous Nazi art dealer Hildebrand Gurlitt, who hid and hoarded many works looted by the Third Reich. They found 1,400 lost masterpieces by the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Munch and Cezanne stolen from Jewish collectors in the 1940s.
Post-Gazette film critic emeritus Barry Paris can be reached at email@example.com.
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