The true story upon which this is based contains incredulity in equal measure with commitment, courage and conviction.
At one point Frank Stokes (George Clooney) tells his ragged band of museum directors, curators, art historians and academics: “This mission was never designed to succeed,” which is an odd, even baffling admission in the middle of a fighting war.
Stokes believes (rightly) that the Nazis were stealing vast quantities of art from Jewish homes and galleries throughout Europe and hoarding them in preparation for the glorious opening of a proposed Fuhrer Museum in Germany.
He persuades those close to FDR to allow him to “protect what’s there and find what’s missing.”
Despite an absence of cultural concern amongst the hawks of Washington, he is given permission.
He picks a handful of non-combatants who, with the exception of a Frenchman (Jean Dujardin) and a jolly decent British officer (Hugh Bonneville) prone to alcoholic abuse, a young lad (Dimitri Leovidas) with local knowledge and a bookish bloke (Matt Damon) from New York’s Metropolitan Museum, consist of geriatrics who don’t know one end of a rifle from the other.
As a result the film becomes a mixture of Dad’s Army and The Cockleshell Heroes (without the shells). How they survived in occupied France for more than five minutes is a mystery. Bill Murray and John Goodman can hardly walk and Bob Balaban behaves like a rabbit in headlights. Damon stays in Paris with Cate Blanchett. Who wouldn’t?
How these men achieve their goal of saving thousands of priceless artefacts and paintings is where the incredulity comes in and why the film fails.
Without explaining the how, there is nothing left but speculation.
An example of lunacy, wrapped in good intentions, is when Bonneville slips into Bruges, still occupied by the Germans, to protect Michelangelo’s Madonna & Child with a pistol. Capt Mainwaring would have had something to say about that.