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In his sixth directorial effort, George Clooney has made a middle-of-the-road movie about an intriguing subject, the attempt to rescue priceless art seized by the Nazis during World War II.

The Monumunments Men take stock of their mission
The Monumunments Men take stock of their mission

The Monuments Men of the title are a group of aging academics and art specialists charged with saving paintings, sculpture and monuments from Hitler’s rapacious legions. Upper-echelon Nazis wanted to appropriate most of western art for a gargantuan museum to be named after the Fuhrer. Pieces that didn’t make it into Hitler’s art mausoleum would find their way into the private collections of Nazi bigwigs.

Clooney also stars in the movie: He plays Frank Stokes, an art historian from Harvard’s Fogg Museum: Stokes leads the culture-saving effort after assembling his team in what amounts to a subdued Dirty Dozen style.

Matt Damon plays James Granger, an art expert from the Museum of Metropolitan Art in New York; Bill Murray portrays architect Richard Campbell; John Goodman appears as a sculptor; Jean Dujardin portrays a French art dealer; and Bob Balaban plays Preston Savitz, a character whose professional skills weren’t entirely clear to me. British actor Hugh Bonneville takes on the role of a British art expert who’s trying to rehabilitate his reputation as a drunk.

Cate Blanchett has a smaller role as Claire, a French woman who works at a Paris museum, and who has been forced to assist the Nazis in their pilfering. It takes a while for Damon’s character to convince Claire, who also has ties to the Resistance, to help find hidden art treasures: She’s fearful that the U.S. will appropriate masterpieces in much the same way as the Germans have done.

A couple of major tensions break through the movie’s somewhat frozen surface. First, there’s an on-going argument about whether any piece of art is worth a human life. That raises additional questions about the importance of culture, even during war-time duress.

Early on, Clooney’s Stokes asks President Roosevelt — a leader for whom art was not a top priority — what the war will have meant if, at the end of it, Michelangelo’s David has been reduced to rubble.

The Monuments Men also race to keep important art objects out of the hands of the advancing Russians, who are portrayed as eager to get their hands on landmarks of Western civilization.

As it turns out, much of the stolen art was hidden in German mines, but the movie’s discoveries have a plodding feel. The men’s various missions proceed without much vigor.

That seems a major miscalculation: The Monuments Men is like a caper movie — only without the caper.

The screenplay by Clooney and Grant Heslov (based on a book by Robert M. Edsel) makes some attempts at humor, most of it italicized by one of the most disappointing musical scores in recent memory, a shock since it was written by the gifted Alexandre Desplat, whose work I’ve almost always admired.

The movie attempts to differentiate among the characters in broad ways, but, as depicted here, these are not the most interesting group of people. Moreover, Clooney doesn’t find enough ways to demonstrate either the men’s passion for art or their expertise.

Ironically, the movie could have benefited from more talk about art. Michelangelo’s Madonna of Bruges turns up, as does a famous Ghent altar piece, but for a movie about the enduring importance of art, Monuments Men pays too little attention to it.

Oh well, call it a miss by some very talented people: This little-known and clearly fascinating story deserved more than the shrug The Monuments Men induces.