From the moment Brad Pitt drops into the opening frame like a celestial object descending from some matinee idol galaxy far, far away, to the point, minutes later, that the camera sizes up an impossibly glamourous, probably duplicitous Marion Cotillard in a cosmopolitan café, Allied already seems to be two meta-textual steps ahead of its audience. You want movie stars swooning over each other in an illicit romance? Well, here they are.
To the casual observer, Robert Zemeckis’ World War II thriller has already been consigned to cultural anecdote, its middling US box office overshadowed by a reputation as the film that supposedly broke up Pitt and Angelina Jolie—after the former allegedly fooled around with co-star Cotillard. Whatever the reality behind the speculation, the romantic scandal fits the product: just as celebrity-driven media is obsessed with fake drama for vicarious clicks, so too Zemeckis’ movie fabricates a wish-fulfillment idea of Golden Age Hollywood melodrama—star-crossed gossip and all—for a 21st-century cinema that has increasingly little time for it; at least on the screen.
Allied is an unusual beast, indeed: a simulacrum of what a big, movie star event film might look like in 2016, if it were, oh, 1956. The irony is that it comes from a filmmaker who—if you buy into those tenuous old theories—was one of the wave of blockbuster producer-directors responsible for killing off star vehicles and ushering in the franchise era that has made them more or less redundant. Unwittingly or not, the new Hollywood brats now find themselves in the unusual position of being the industry’s stalwart classicists. Zemeckis’ yesteryear calculation is apparent in that very first shot, with the earthbound Pitt seen striding across a Lawrence of Arabia panorama standing in for the Moroccan desert, wrapped in fatigues that wouldn’t look out of place in an expensive, middle-aged menswear catalogue. You’d be forgiven for thinking the boomer kids have taken over their grandpa’s cinema.
Make no mistake, though: Zemeckis’ classicism is as cutting edge as it gets. A filmmaker who’s spent a career tinkering in the grey zone of digital manipulation—from Back to the Future: Part II’s ethical performance dilemmas to Forrest Gump to the elaborate vistas of last year’s underrated The Walk—he revels in the considerable pleasures of artificiality, conjuring up a hyper-real 1940s in which an American and French resistance fighter (played by Pitt and Cotillard, respectively) fall in love on assignment in Casablanca to assassinate a German ambassador. That their subsequent domestic life is fraught with potential deception—as Pitt’s Max Vatan must wrestle with the notion that his French bride, Cotillard’s Marianne Beauséjour, might not be who she seems—is as transparent a metaphor for the perils beneath any celebrity couple’s supposed bliss as you could ask for.
Moving elegantly from its golden-hued first hour in French Morocco to a bombed out—but no less postcard pretty—wartime England, Allied evokes imagery like an expensive mausoleum of the silver screen, from the obvious callbacks to Casablanca to David Lean, the Archers and Carol Reed’s The Third Man , gliding through high-tech recreations of classic wartime movie tropes filtered through Zemeckis’ gifted eye for composition. The second hour twists and turns under the (matte) painterly gaze of its digital skies, manufacturing a wartime London equal parts grimy shellshock and theme park phoniness—the unlikely beauty extending to the most fabulously unrealistic birth scene involving Cotillard you’ve ever seen. But the movie also happily pokes fun at its own fakeness on more than one occasion. “Your Parisian accent is terrible,” Cotillard’s Marianne tells Pitt at one point. “That was pure Quebec.”
Despite the nods to cinema’s mid-century canon, however, Allied is more in debt to the period that Zemeckis came into his own as a filmmaker—namely, the creative crescendo of his mentor Steven Spielberg’s ’80s Indiana Jones cycle. Though those movies were themselves throwbacks of a similar stripe—film brat pastiches jazzed by then-dazzling effects wizardry—the march of time and eroded cultural memory has rendered the new Hollywood blockbuster as the next generation’s classics. Consequently, Zemeckis’ Moroccan streets call to mind nothing if not Spielberg’s 1930s Cairo in Raiders of the Lost Ark , while Cotillard’s desert ensemble riffs on Alison Doody’s military chic in Last Crusade , and the film’s action set-piece, a gangbusters gun battle at a Nazi cocktail reception, kicks hard like a nightclub off-cut from the master’s Temple of Doom.
It’s slick and propulsive stuff, shimmying with the assured sense of a director and visual effects wrangler who’s spent three decades goosing the dream machine. But it’s also an uncanny-valley approximation of those trifles like romance and emotion; an assembly of pieces that click gorgeously yet yearn for an animating life force. At a pivotal, should-be charged moment of chemistry, for example, Zemeckis obscures some steamy car coupling between Pitt and Cotillard with a gratuitously frantic 360-degree camera spin, before blowing his smooching couple off-screen entirely with the force of a computer-generated sandstorm.
Such post-production exertion behind the romance is telling. The one thing Zemeckis can’t summon, digitally or otherwise, is the chemistry that supposedly existed off-screen between his stars. There’s potentially valuable friction here—between Cotillard, with her enormous bauble eyes and Pitt with his stoic, stilted façade—but even that doesn’t quite spark. Cotillard is an expressive performer in any guise, be it Edith Piaf or penniless factory employee, but Pitt works in a narrower range, without the gift of being interesting in his stillness (as would a silent film star, or Keanu Reeves.) He’s better when his pistons are firing in macho—and thus comical—displays of angst. It’s why Pitt’s best moment here isn’t how good he looks in a suit or vintage Ray-bans, but when he suddenly dropkicks a chair during an interrogation room outburst—unintentionally hilarious, sure, but better in channeling his chewy character-actor instinct. At least he’s alive, which is more than can be said for much of his house of wax performance elsewhere.
If it’s a dramatic failing that the film lacks the star chemistry necessary for its tragic ending to land, Allied remains fascinating as work of art in search of the real, both in its narrative and construction—and by extension, the futile quest of dull, middle-aged men trying to pry open the enigma of a woman beyond their comprehension. When the British secret service “rat catchers”—spearheaded by the reliably weaselly Simon McBurney—smell trouble with Marianne, the film’s final, superficially gripping hour sees Max’s desperate attempts to determine whether or not she’s a spy; and if she is, commit the ultimate sacrifice in executing her himself. Pitt’s increasingly frantic efforts to find the ‘truth’ about Marianne mirror Allied’s own grasping for emotional resonance, that mythical ‘real’ that might finally generate an emotional connection between audience and filmmaker. That it remains just out of reach is a fitting enough analogue for Zemeckis’ similarly earnest but frustrated quest, rummaging around in the digital toolbox for that elusive magic that he’s somehow not been able to locate.1
Only Cotillard offers up that desired glimmer of “movie magic,” the missing link to the fabled cinema of yore and its digital avatar; and yet her essence escapes the grasp of the men furrowing their brows in its pursuit. What they don’t seem to understand, as she says of her charade in her first meeting with Pitt, is that there’s no distinction between the real and the fake in a great movie: “I keep the emotions real,” she tells him. “That’s why it works.”