A film review by Craig J. Koban December 2, 2016


2016, R, 124 mins.


Brad Pitt as Max Vatan  /  Marion Cotillard as Marianne Beausejour  /  Lizzy Caplan as Bridget Vatan  /  Matthew Goode as Guy Sangster  /  Jared Harris as Frank Heslop  /  Anton Lesser as Emmanuel Lombard  /  August Diehl as Hobar  /  Marion Bailey as Mrs. Sinclair

Directed by Robert Zemeckis  /  Written by Steven Knight

Robert Zemeckis' World War II romance/espionage drama ALLIED is an attempt on his part, I think, to craft a loving homage to the aesthetic of old Hollywood utilizing, of course, modern day technology.  

This is certainly not the Oscar winning filmmaker's first foray into WWII (he co-wrote 1941 decades ago for Steven Spielberg), but ALLIED marks his first time dealing with this historical terrain from behind the camera.  With a screenplay that frequently crackles with Hitchcockian suspense and intrigue by Stephen Knight (whom previously wrote and directed the masterfully minimalist Tom Hardy one-man show LOCKE) and with proven lead actors at the helm, Zemeckis has assembled a truly ace team here to craft his ode to CASABLANCA and NOTORIOUS, even though the film does indeed stumble along the way and has some noticeable faults that hold it back from achieving true greatness. 

The finest aspect of ALLIED is that it's an atypical WWII era genre effort in the sense that it's not about soldiers on the front lines or combat between nations (like, say, the recent HACKSAW RIDGE).  No, Zemeckis' film - like CASABLANCA well before it - concerns a different type of conflict that occurs well beyond the battlefield, which ultimately makes the film more of a spy thriller than a chronicle of the hellish rigors of war.  The film opens by introducing us to Canadian intelligence agent Max Vatan (Brad Pitt, who's 52-years-old, but still has an ageless facade that suits his role and the film well) that's stationed in Morocco on a top secret mission to assassinate a German ambassador at a lavish and very public gala.  His superiors have "given him a wife" as a form of cover, but more specifically to partner with him on his dangerous quest in the form of a beautiful French Resistance fighter, Marianne Beausejour (a pitch perfectly cast Marion Cotillard, capable of encapsulating classic Hollywood glamour with ease).   



As they acclimatize themselves to posing as a married couple and grow to learn more intimate details about the other, sparks do indeed and predictably begin to fly between them (which culminates in one of the film's more unintentionally laughable moments of them making love in a car with a massive desert sand storm erupting on the outside).  Marianne is trusted by the Germans, which allows the pair to gain an invitation to the German ambassador's party.  The plan goes off relatively smoothly and the pair do escape, but Max has become so smitten and attached to Marianne that he asks her to come live with him as he returns to London, to which she agrees.  They settle down, get married, and have a baby (the birth - occurring on the streets of London as the Germans shell it with bombs - in the film's other unintentionally laughable moment), and begin a life of normalcy and happiness. 

Or....do they...??? 

Just when Max feels that he has achieved some level of peace and harmony outside of the nightmarish extremes of war he receives a special assignment from his superior (a stalwart Jared Harris) and a special operations higher up (played impeccably well, in a brief scene, by Simon McBurney) that they have received intelligence that Marianne potentially has been lying to Max for years and is actually an undercover German spy.  The evidence they have is not completely conclusive, which is where Max figures in: They order him to plant false intelligence information in hopes that Marianne will find it and subsequently send it to her German handlers, which hopefully can be traced.  If she's a spy then Max is ordered to kill her on sight (failure to do so will have him charged for treason and executed), but if she's proven to be innocent then Max can continue to go about his marriage as if nothing happened.  Of course, Max initially refuses to believe such a nonsensical theory, but he's given no alternative to abandon his assignment.  The the more agonizingly tense time he spends with his "loving" wife the more suspicious he grows of her every move. 

Zemeckis is a beyond proven and bona fide talent as a technical filmmaker (his recreation of 1970's New York and the wirewalk between the Twin Towers in his previous and very underrated film THE WALK is testament to that), and ALLIED is another unqualified visual triumph for him.  His overall command of the period decor, production design, and art direction is truly superlative, making for audience immersion in this era occur with relative ease and immediacy (cinematographer Don Burgess's lush imagery and Joanna Johnston's immaculate costume design are Oscar caliber here).  Zemeckis is also no stranger to infusing his films with top notch visual effects, and ALLIED is no exception, even though it's arguably a lighter production for him than his previous films on that level.  Also, they are instances here and there where some of the effects work betrays the nostalgic look and feel of the classic films of yesteryear that he was paradoxically going for (some scenes - such as the aforementioned one in the desert with Marianne and Max - never feel like they were shot on location, but instead appear to be the product of greenscreen work). 

It would be easy to argue that Knight's script is a real star and standout of ALLIED, something that Zemeckis equally regards and is evident in the film.  The story has a very methodical and slow burn approach to the material, seeing as the first half is about character introductions and establishing a loving bond between the two spies during their first mission together.  The latter - and more enthralling - half deals with Max desperately trying to honor the wishes of his superiors while trying to maintain a calm and collected facade with his wife that may or may not be a traitor.   Knight and Zemeckis working in concert together to conjure up some truly remarkable sequences of nail biting suspense that taps into Max's ever-increasing paranoia.  That, and the script legitimately keeps us guessing as to Marianne's culpability or lack thereof.  All of this tension is driven home by Cotillard's brilliantly spot-on performance as Marianne, who has an inordinately tricky performance task of not showing her character's cards on the table with too much obviousness.   

This, unfortunately, brings me to the other performance half of ALLIED that regrettably does the whole enterprise a rather grave disservice.  Brad Pitt is one of our most dependably charismatic actors and has certainly imbued his previous WWII films (like INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS and FURY, a greatly overlooked diamond in the genre rough effort) with ample and memorable eccentricity and fiery charm.  It's depressing, as a result and by direct comparison to those films, to see the actor deliver such a flat, monotone, and at times borderline emotionally comatose performance as his anxiety plagued intelligence officer.  Compared to Cotillard's impassioned performance, there's an alarming aura of disinterest in Pitt through the film, which has the negative consequence of neutering his chemistry with Cotillard.  At times you have to wonder what Marianne ever saw in this fairly emotionless lug...other than the fact that he looks like Brad Pitt and looks good in uniform; they're simply not very convincing as an on-screen couple.   

Everything in ALLIED builds towards a potentially pulse pounding conclusion that's disappointingly anti-climatic.  All in all, considering that this film is from the acclaimed director of BACK TO THE FUTURE, FORREST GUMP, CONTACT, and FLIGHT, I was left frankly wanting and expecting more; Zemeckis never quite delivers on all of the tantalizing promises and potential in his film.  That's not to say that the director's passionate heart isn't in the material, because it clearly is, seeing as this is a as handsomely mounted as any period film I've seen - it's an stunningly nostalgic effort that evokes Hollywood's Golden Age while still embracing 21st century filmmaking resources.  And half of the performance dynamic here works splendidly.  Ultimately, I find myself just marginally recommending ALLIED because the sum of what it does resoundingly well trumps its distracting deficiencies.  The film might represent Zemeckis at his most conventional, but I'll still take a conventional Zemeckis film over most of what I sit through in a cinema these days. 



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