They don't storm the beach at Normandy, these art-expert soldiers, they casually walk ashore, striding toward their mission as they would if they were visiting the Met.

That mission (one that really took place) is to rescue the great art treasures of Europe, the ones Hitler seized and secreted away in mines with a view toward opening a Fuhrer Museum in Austria after he laid claim to all the power in the world. Failing that, he planned to destroy every last painting and sculpture. Enter the Monuments Men, a team of American/Allied academic art and architecture experts, here played by Matt Damon, John Goodman, Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, The Artist's Jean Dujardin, Downton Abbey's Hugh Bonneville and director/co-writer George Clooney. These guys are jaunty.

So is the film, and weirdly so. But that's kind of understandable given the nature of Clooney as a filmmaker. Over the course of his acting career he's built a public persona as America's thinking-man's man, your favorite handsome bachelor uncle, the one who scores with the ladies and urges you to read great books. He wants you to take him seriously but not too much. And this is good of him. It's nice having a National Coolness Treasure. But when that spills over into his directorial work it can sink everything.

This is a film, after all, about an extremely dark moment in 20th century history, one that wants to convince contemporary audiences that risking lives in the hunt for a priceless statue of The Madonna and Child was worth anyone's time or effort (and there are no fewer than four heart-stirring mini-speeches about the gravity of that task, not to worry). But when much of the rest of the action consists of Bill Murray comedy-squabbling with Bob Balaban -- and for what reason, exactly? Who are these guys again and do they really hate each other? And why? -- or Matt Damon mangling the French language and stepping on an amusing landmine, or the men slowly saving treasure after treasure with no real trouble getting in their way while Alexandre Desplat's score happily whistle-marches itself over the bridge on the River Kwai, it's probably a bad idea to suddenly lurch the action into abrupt death, emotional arm-twisting, or the Shoah-lite moment of finding a barrel full of the gold fillings of tens of thousands of slaughtered European Jews. If a movie could be wrung by the neck and forced to pick a tone, this one would be in for some rough treatment.

But you're in luck, art aficionados and World War 2 cinema enthusiasts. There's a great film about this subject you can sit down and watch right now. It stars another man's man, Burt Lancaster, and it was directed by John Frankenheimer and it's as exciting and tense and meaningful as this one is slack and confused and bumbling. It's 1964's The Train. Get on it.


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