The person with the most difficult job on The Monuments Men was the great composer Alexandre Desplat.
Desplat must have sat down with director George Clooney and Clooney said something along the lines of, "So I've made a movie that feels like Ocean's Eleven about 85 percent of the time and like Schindler's List the other 15. What I need you to do is create some magical music that will make it all fit together."
Desplat failed — as does the movie. In fairness, both might have tackled impossible projects.
The scope of the movie, which is quite loosely based on true events, is too vast, the tone too varied. As the movie tries to suggest, the story encompasses heartbreaking tragedy and unlikely derring-do by middle-age academics, spread out over Europe, who were pressed into service to save the world's greatest art and architectural treasures from theft and destruction by Adolf Hitler.
From the start, The Monuments Men is in trouble, with Clooney (who co-wrote the script with producer Grant Heslov) introducing eight not-terribly-distinctive characters while covering several years of history: Hitler was looting private and museum collections, he would destroy them if he couldn't have them, Resistance workers in France had bits of information that could help figure out where the stolen art was, American curators had the background to identify and save important pieces, Germany was about to lose the war, and there was very little time to find and preserve centuries of culture, history and beauty.
Clooney plays Frank Stokes, who is based on George Stout (all names in the film have been changed and the characters significantly altered). He narrates the heck out of The Monuments Men, trying to fill in gaps in a story that remains wildly gappy.
How did the so-called Monuments Men convince reluctant military officials that what they were doing was important? How much time is passing? Where are we? And frankly, who are any of these people?
The Monuments Men is a bewildering and occasionally amateurish movie, a surprise given the terrific work Clooney did on Good Night, and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. There are a few good scenes, but there's little sense of wonder at the vast amounts of art the Monuments Men saved and only the briefest of nods to the sad fact that much of what they found could not be returned because the owners had been murdered in Dachau and Auschwitz and Buchenwald.
Could a longer movie hit those important notes and not careen recklessly from caper to tragedy and back?
I don't know. But there are better options for learning more about the Monuments Men: the John Frankenheimer thriller The Train, which is just as contrived but more entertaining; Robert Edsel's fascinating book The Monuments Men, on which the film is sorta based; and, best of all, the 2006 documentary The Rape of Europa, which introduces the real people and makes sense of much of the same material.