May 2024

Allied (2016)

allied2DIRECTOR: Robert Zemeckis

CAST: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard


Robert Zemeckis is no stranger to period films (Forrest Gump travels through decades of historical events), and now he’s turned his attention to crafting an old-fashioned wartime romance and potboiler of the like that Hollywood churned out in the 1940s.  Unsurprisingly for someone of his much-lauded technical craftsmanship, Zemeckis has succeeded on a superficial level, but while engaging enough to be worth a look for a fan of this sort of thing, Allied, a bit like Steven Soderbergh’s The Good Germanfocuses more on pretty pictures and capturing a certain style than on its pedestrian and undistinguished narrative.  It’s not a bad film, but while it pays homage to them, it’s not likely to become an enduring classic.

We open in 1942 French Morocco, where Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) first meets French Resistance agent Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) in Casablanca.  Posing as husband-and-wife, the two spies are on a risky mission to assassinate a high-ranking German official.  One thing leads to another, and after blurring the line between pretending and being, Max brings Marianne to London with him to be his wife.  A year later, the two are settled down (or at least as much as wartime allows) and seem a happily-married couple with a baby daughter.  But Max’s next top-secret assignment will test not only his professional capabilities but his personal willpower.  British intelligence suspects Marianne of being a spy for the Germans and commences on a scheme to catch her red-handed.  Max is ordered to leave false information where Marianne is sure to find it, while British intelligence monitors radio traffic to see if it shows up in the Germans’ transmissions.  If Marianne takes the bait and proves her guilt, Max is ordered to execute her with his own hands.  If he refuses to do so, he may be considered an accomplice and executed alongside her for treason.  Max insists his wife’s innocence, but against his superior’s orders, embarks on his own investigation to find out the truth.

nullThe strongest aspect of Allied is the visuals.  On a technical level, everything looks great, from the postcard-picturesque deserts of Morocco to the London Blitz to Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard’s glamorous period wardrobes.  Zemeckis has always made good-looking films, and he doesn’t fall short of that here.  In fact, there’s almost the sense that everything is too pretty, too cleaned-up and (apart from a couple blood-spurting headshots) too sanitized, like we’re not so much watching a wartime spy drama as a movie-length period photoshoot.  Zemeckis’ homages to the Hollywood classics is less-than-subtle (we open and spend the first half hour or so in Casablanca); it’s not hard to imagine this movie being made in the 1940s and starring the likes of Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, but while it’s accomplished on a technical level, it’s conventional and undistinguished, doing nothing to push the envelope like Zemeckis has done in some of his more classic entries, like a competent but uninspired cover of a classic song.

Narratively and emotionally, things are more inert.  The central mystery—is Marianne guilty or innocent—is decently intriguing, and the film does an effective enough job making us unsure what to think, but the film is too cool, too self-consciously glamorous, too remote for us to really feel invested in it emotionally.  While the movie devotes the opening 40 minutes or so to establishing Max and Marianne’s romance, it feels rushed and not fully earned.  Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard don’t generate much chemistry, even in a steamy lovemaking scene in a car as a sandstorm rages outside (unsubtle metaphor for their “raging passion” that the scene is desperately trying to convince us exists) that feels like Allied‘s answer to the infamous car scene in Titanic.  Elements of the movie feel like it’s unfolding like a less dense cousin of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spythrowing up questions to sow our doubts—Max visits a man Marianne supposedly rescued with a picture to confirm her identity, only to find out the man is now blind, and the question is raised of whether this is merely an elaborate game devised by British intelligence to test Max’s loyalty as an audition for an important job during the impending D-Day invasion—but in the end, the conclusion is underwhelmingly straightforward and uncomplicated.  Those half-suspecting some more creative surprise twist will be let down.

alliedAs the heroic pilot and spy with a stiff upper lip, Brad Pitt does more modeling than acting.  Max is bland and shows little in the way of emotion despite the wrenching dilemma he finds himself in, meaning we don’t feel much toward our protagonist.  Marion Cotillard is more lively, making Marianne both beguiling and ambiguous enough to have a touch of a femme fatale, but she seems to be doing most of the work in the “couple” scenes, meaning their chemistry never catches fire.  On paper, the two famously photogenic and glamorous stars might have sounded like a promising combination, but they don’t generate much heat or emotion.  Apart from small roles for Jared Harris (as Max’s commanding officer), Lizzy Caplan (as Max’s unabashed lesbian sister), and Simon McBurney (his usual creepy self as the chilly intelligence officer who gives Max his assignment), this is for all intents and purposes a two-person show.

Allied is watchable and moderately entertaining and intriguing and has moments of tension—an early bit where Max and Marianne’s false identities pass the scrutiny of a suspicious German officer (August Diehl, in a role not dissimilar to the one he played in Inglourious Basterds), the assassination in Casablanca, a later street fight with German troops in France, and a party interrupted by an air raid—but in the hands of a director less focused on pretty pictures, and with a stronger lead actor (or at least a director who pushed Pitt out of lazily coasting along and into making an actual effort, as David Ayer did in Pitt’s last trip to WWII, the far grittier Fury), it’s easy to see how this same premise could have made for a spy thriller far more intense, tragic, and powerful.  Alas, that doesn’t seem to really be Zemeckis’ aims here, and Allied is left like a handsome but somewhat empty love letter to more classic films.

* * 1/2