‘Monuments Men’ harks back to an earlier war-movie era

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They don’t make ’em like “The Monuments Men” anymore.

For those of a certain age — or who simply have a deep interest in American war films — this George Clooney-directed WWII drama recalls the kind of stout-hearted combat movie that seemed to be so popular from the 1950s through the early ’70s. In fact, the plot — a group of older art experts recruited to sneak into Europe and rescue priceless works before the Germans or the Russians can get them — recalls the likes of “The Dirty Dozen” or “Kelly’s Heroes,” in which a small band of men must infiltrate Nazi lines.

There’s none of “Saving Private Ryan’s” graphic realism or “Inglorious Basterds’” cheeky cultural horseplay. There are no shades of gray. Even the score by Alexandre Desplat and the closing credits seem straight out of 1962. All of that is kind of cool in theory but, as a film, “The Monuments Men” falls short even if its message — forms of creativity are worth preserving even in times of disaster — remains a compelling one.

Based on a true story and the book of the same name by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter, “The Monuments Men” — with its shifting tone between light comedy and drama — rarely gets the viewer invested enough to really care what happens to them. And that’s unfortunate, because it really is a fascinating footnote in history.

Clooney is Frank Stokes, an art historian who at the beginning of the film is begging President Franklin Roosevelt to send a team to Europe to salvage much of the West’s cultural heritage. The president is intrigued but tasks Stokes with putting together a team of fellow art professionals to do it himself.

So Stokes calls museum curator James Granger (Matt Damon) and other professionals in the field, including historian Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), sculptor Walter Garfield (John Goodman), architect Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), art dealer Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin) and Englishman Hugh Bonneville (Donald Jeffries), whose art credentials remain nebulous.

Once in Europe, Granger has to track down Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett), an informal double agent who works for the Nazi bureau in charge of taking art to Germany, where Hitler wants to open a sprawling Fuehrer Museum. However, she really has ties with the Resistance and is keeping tabs on where the art is going.

All of this is rife with possibilities, but the set-up is too rushed. Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov only offer thin character sketches, so when everyone is put in jeopardy, their fates don’t really matter. It’s hard to care about any of them.

On top of that, there are moments of mild humor — such as the rivalry between Campbell and Savitz — that aren’t particularly funny. It’s just one of the more obvious ways that this all-star cast is underutilized.

There is one scene that works: Campbell receives a recording that his family back home has made for him and Savitz, as a surprise, plays it over the camp loud speakers. The look on Murray’s face conveys a wave of emotion that the rest of the film is lacking.

It may not be a monumental moment but, in this movie, that’s about as good as it gets.

2 stars (out of 5)

Cast: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, Cate Blanchett

Rated: PG-13 (some images of war violence and historical smoking)

118 min.

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