Robert Zemeckis is a talented filmmaker. The guy has an ability to tell a story in purely cinematic terms that comes close to his mentor, Steven Spielberg. Yet somewhere around the time he stopped writing his own movies to become a prestige filmmaker, he lost touch with how to craft characters who resemble humans. His latest movie, ‘Allied’, is a big beautiful throwback to old-timey war melodramas and also completely bereft of relatable human experience. It’s still worth a whirl purely for the craftsmanship and movie nerdery, but don’t expect anything to feel less than larger-than-life.
Brad Pitt stars as a WWII era spy who may as well be named Dashing McHandsome, but is actually named Max Vatan. He saunters into Casablanca under German rule on a mission when he falls for a mysterious woman. (All connections to a certain gold standard old Hollywood classic are intentional.) That lady is Marion Cotillard playing Marianne Beauséjour (but she could be named Pretty McDeadly). She too is a spy, for the French. Together they will pose as a wealthy couple to pull off a secret assassination. During the course of the mission, they fall hard for each other in that tensely unspoken way of the old talkies. After the mission is a success, they wed and move to London together. Max keeps spying while Marianne plays housewife. It’s a real “happily ever after” scenario. However, only half the running time has passed and this is a spy movie. Secrets remain, along with suspense and romance.
‘Allied’ is an unapologetic melodrama. Emotions are pitched so high that it’s nearly impossible to see over them. Every shot is so calculated or constructed that there’s no room for naturalism or messiness to slip in. Every costume is carefully pressed, every face immaculately made-up and lit. The film was apparently mostly shot on a backlot and sure looks like it. There’s a pleasant nostalgia to the artificiality of the ordeal that may work for some and irritate the hell out of others. To an extent, the whole movie feels like a blockbuster film school assignment, carefully recreating the way the studios used to do it with a few new bells and whistles that weren’t available at the time. It’s very pretty, but mostly pretty cold. It feels more like an exercise in style than something made with passion, and that’s not exactly the best approach to a love story.
Pitt and Cotillard certainly look the part of their mysterious lovers. They pose perfectly for the camera at all times, radiating beauty. The movie has some sexual tension, but mostly in a manner suited to the style than anything genuine. The characters are more mannequins than people, but they go through the motions well. The performances aren’t bad, just highly posed and stylized in a way that feels odd in a contemporary movie landscape.
The film works better in its spy games. Zemeckis carefully cranks tension and the lead actors hold their cards close at all times. When the movie settles into clockwork suspense sequences (particularly in the second half), it raises pulses even as the tale teeters into the ridiculous.
‘Allied’ might be a big star-studded Hollywood winter release, but it’s not something destined to be a crowd-pleaser. Released between 1942-1966, it would have played like gangbusters. Now it mostly exists for audiences nostalgic for that old Hollywood magic. Unfortunately for all involved, the numbers of that audience deplete every day. Still, you have to admire how steadfast Zemeckis held to his convictions in the project. This is the movie everyone involved wanted to make and it does indeed recapture a certain brand of movie magic long since lost. Whether or not modern audiences will care remains to be seen. This grand old train set sure is pretty, but the engine sputters and creaks like the relic it is.