If the story of the recapture of looted art from the clutches of the Nazis were not true, it is exactly the kind of madcap caper that would light the eyes of Hollywood.
In fact, its closest contemporary is Quentin Tarantino’s revisionist epic Inglourious Basterds, such is its shambling audacity.
However, the truth of one tale and the fancy of the other is not the only difference here, as this Clooney roadshow (he stars, directs, co-writes) has a number of flaws that conspire to snuff out that delicious early glow.
The story sees Clooney’s Frank Stokes assemble a platoon of art experts to tour post D-Day Europe safeguarding monuments, protecting art and, in the process, raining on Hitler’s bonfire of the vanities.
“We need to know if the Statue of David is still standing, if the Mona Lisa is still smiling,” he says.
His argument rings true if a little flaccid against mass slaughter but the President gives the go-ahead.
Clooney’s crew know more about Michelangelo than marching and Botticelli than basic training and contains such prime physical specimens as John Goodman’s Walter Garfield, Bill Murray’s Richard Campbell, and Hugh Bonneville’s Donald Jeffries.
Meanwhile Matt Damon is dispatched to Paris to declench the spinsterly reticence of Parisan curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett).
Not so much the Dirty Dozen then but the Scholarly Seven who seek priceless needles in Swastika haystacks all the while ducking bullets and annoying their fighting brethren.
From such missions, great films can be made but this, sadly, this falls short although its flat sincerity encourages comparison with the heroic stiff-upper-lippers of the ’50s and ’60s.
The team splits into units and it’s then the film begins to fray. The fragmentary narrative makes the film slack, unwieldy and meandering.
For each unit there is a totemic piece of art, the search and discovery of which unleashes another wave of poignancy. This might counteract the coy buddy-buddy banter but ultimately it becomes a wave that will not break.
Clooney cannot recover from the imbalance. He throws away death with admirable restraint, acknowledging in the fabric of the picture both the mismatch of life and art, and the equivalence of art and civilisation. Yet he still presses upon us scenes of arch sentimentalism as if world war doesn’t quite cut it as a tear-jerker.
And while Bonneville and Blanchett create frail and human characters, the others resort to their familiar schtick, which is great fun but glib, leading to tonal inconsistencies.
Nevertheless, this is a charming tribute to the men who carried out this monumental task and, while the film-making is fitful, there is plenty of majesty in its scope and intent.
The Monuments Men