It's the time during World War II, when the Nazis are about to invade Belgium. Some priests hurriedly disassemble panels of a major piece of artwork in a church and attempt to spirit them away before they are overrun by the Nazis.
In America, George Clooney as the character of Professor Frank Stokes, makes a presentation to the President of the United States to tell him about the tragedy of what is happening to the famous artwork in Europe because of the war. Stokes pleads for permission, under Presidential order, to assemble a team of art experts to go to Europe. Their mission is to find and protect as much of the art as possible, plus return any stolen art to its rightful owners. The President reluctantly agrees to allow Stokes to form a special squad to be called "The Monument Men."
Stokes recruits his old friend James Granger (played by Matt Damon) for the team, then Richard Campbell (played by Bill Murray) from a construction site he is supervising in New York. Next a Frenchman Jean Claude Clermont (played by Jean Dujardin) in added to the team, and a Brit Donald Jeffries (played by Hugh Bonneville), then Preston Savitz (played by Bob Balaban) who is directing a New York ballet at the time he is recruited and Walter Garfield (John Goodman) who is a sculptor. This rag-tag team are all experts in art, but are not cut out to be soldiers. Even going through basic training and getting let off easy, because they are mostly old men, does little to improve their soldiering skills. They are taken to Europe and proceed on their mission. During the time while the team was being trained in Paris, an assistant art museum curator, Claire Simone (played by Cate Blanchett) watches in horror while her German-designated boss conspires with the Nazis to steal all the art and send it to Germany as Hitler has ordered. She is secretly part of the French resistance and tries to stop the shipment of art by telling her brother about it. But her brother is killed in the attempt.
When the team of the Monument Men hits Europe they are split into groups of two men each, to go to different cities, to look for specific pieces of priceless art. The Brit, Donald Jeffries, is killed trying to keep the Nazis from stealing Michelangelo's Madonna and Child that is in a church and the beautiful statue gets lost to the Germans. Germany is losing the war and the allied troops continue to advance on Berlin. Hitler issues his "Nero" order that says everything should be destroyed including all the art if surrender of Germany is eminent or if Hitler dies. The Nazis burn and destroy lots of the artwork on their retreat from the advancing allied forces. The Frenchman, Jean Claude Clermont, is killed in the woods by a Nazi ambush while with the American Walter Garfield who barely escapes with his life. Richard Campbell, while with Preston Savitz, finds the German who was the curator of the French museum hiding in a farm house in the countryside that is full of stolen art. They also recover a map that leads them to the treasures they are seeking.
The maps shows the locations of mines of various types near cities in Germany. These are the places that Hitler has used to hide the stolen goods. They discover huge troves of art and even find a large stock of gold that is all of Germany's reserves. Still they are looking for some very particular pieces of art that have a lot of meaning to the men. They find the panels from the church that were stolen from Belgium, all except one which is missing. It turns out that that missing panel is being used upside-down by the Germans as a table-top on top of a couple of saw horses. The Russians have a different method for dealing with the art. The Russians want to keep any art they find. As the Russians advance on the last mine where the Madonna and Child might be found, the Americans continue to desperately search for it in the mine.
Best part of story, including ending:
I liked very much that this movie was based on a true story that came from a book.
Best scene in story:
When the assistant museum curator, Claire Simone trusts James Granger enough to give him the meticulously kept record book of all the art she saw that was stolen, who owned it, and where it was sent after being taken from the Paris museum. It is very uplifting, emotional moment in the film because it means some of the artwork can be returned to its owners, most of whom were Jewish.
Opinion about the main character:
Professor Stokes love for art and the deep meaning it has for human culture and civilization is very poignant and well demonstrated by his actions as well as how he inspired his men, some who lost their lives for the sake of the art.