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When a movie is as stiff as George Clooney’s The Monuments Men, it becomes an object of fascination in its own right – like your first glimpse of a dead body. Its stillness is mesmerizing. The idea was lively enough. Taking off from where their Oscar-winning geopolitical caper movie Argo left off, writers Grant Heslov and Clooney have fashioned a script about the squad of art experts tasked by Roosevelt with tracking down art plundered by the Nazis in the closing days of the war. “Who will make sure that the statue of David is still standing and the Mona Lisa still smiling?” mission leader George L Stout (Clooney) asks the president before assembling his team, a prepossessing collection of bellies and greybeards comprising an art restorer (Matt Damon), a portly sculptor (John Goodman), a salacious Frenchman (Jean Dujardin), an on-the-wagon Brit (Hugh Bonneville) and two squabbling architects (Bob Balaban and Bill Murray). Clooney fills the air with cracks about wives, a marching brass-band and Bridge-over-the River-Kwai-style chorused whistling, just to let you know exactly how far back in cinema history we are going to be travelling tonight. The film feels so amiably ancient they should have called it Ocean’s 87: the Ration-Book Years. Or Saving Private Ryan: the Battle for Arts Funding. Still, it could have been fun. The Raiders movies covered much the same ground – Nazis, art loot, archaeological digs – all whisked along by the Rube-Goldbergish instincts of a director who couldn’t wait to get from one end of a speeding jeep to another, and whose approach to genre had much the same mixture of plunder and glee.

Clooney’s is a much more leisurely, ambulatory affair, trawling the French countryside, where his men engage in a series of detachable comic vignettes against a series of backdrops seemingly left over from Saving Private Ryan – Matt Damon speaks French badly! Dujardin and Goodman bicker over who gets to draw sniper-fire! – while church steeples peal gently in the distance. It’s all eerily quiet, as if Clooney feared that any sudden noise or action would wake his performers up. It speaks to the energy levels of the film that when Balaban and Murray come across a frightened German youth with a gun, Murray resolves the stand-off by inviting all to sit on the grass and be quiet for a minute, and soon they are all puffing on a cigarette – a very Clooney-esque moment, you can’t help but feel, all conflict resolved in a blur of geniality. He must be the only director in America to use Bill Murray as an emollient.

This is his fifth film and it’s by now apparent that his great flaw as a director is what makes him interesting as a movie star: he disdains conflict as a means of generating drama. For Clooney, all conflict means stupidity and there’s no crime in his book worse than stupidity, no argument that can’t be settled agreeably between agreeable men over a brandy snifter. I wonder, though, if his brand of intelligence isn’t the greater liability in a director. The great directors – Huston, Ford, Hawks, Peckinpah – were ornery old dogs, barkers and borderline crazies, unbound by the need to be liked, howling at the moon to get their vision in place. Clooney puts movies to sleep with his reasonableness. I know Good Night and Good Luck had its fans, but I can’t now remember a single scene from that film, outside a generalized impression of men in darkened rooms, smoking, remonstrating and reasoning with one another – a vision of sotto voce cinema, void of unnecessary exposition, where drama means never having to raise your voice unnecessarily.

Fine if you’re making a film about the power-plays of a broadcasting network, but a killer if you’re making a movie about war – quite possible the worst subject Clooney could have tackled. All is quiet on his Western Front. There’s so much dead air in the picture you can hear clocks ticking. At one point I found myself looking at the faces of Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett, playing a member of the French resistance who worries the Americans will steal all the loot for themselves, and wondering: have they stopped speaking or is someone going to say something else? Should I? After an hour-and-a-half, we get a shot of actual Germans destroying actual loot, as Hitler’s Nero Decree is put into effect and Blanchett unlocks the secrets of a book in which are catalogued every item the Nazis snatched – Suddenly! Antagonists! A plot! A race against the clock! And Clues! – rather in the manner of a blocked pipe suddenly unblocking itself. Couldn’t all this have come, you know, at the beginning of the picture, during all those speeches about art being worth the sacrifice? “Is a work of art worth a man’s life?” asks Clooney in an abandoned, candle-lit church – just the sort of head-scratcher that jolts them out of their soup at the Rotary club, no doubt, but to anyone who devotes more than a moment’s thought to the matter the answer is surely “No, of course not.”

Clooney realizes this, I think – he bookends the film with two slide shows and lectures pressing the point further – but an air of quixotic forlornness fills the air. “God now I’m depressed,” says Hugh Bonneville at one point. As Clooney sat there in the final scene, gloating to his SS counterpart about how much America was on the right side of history – the side with Picasso and Michelangelo on it – I couldn’t help thinking of some bright, young German film student, recently graduated from the Vienna Film Academy, where she studied under Michael Haneke, well-versed in the ways of American soft power, and what she might make of this film’s calm appropriation of the culture of another continent in order to settle a seventy-year-old pissing match with the Germans over war spoils. The Monuments Men will be making its debut at the Berlin Film Festival later this week. Goodnight and good luck.

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