Not even fifteen minutes into Allied, I found myself wondering, “Who is the amateurish director responsible for this thing?” The whole movie has a feeling of artificiality hovering over it. The streets of 1942 French Morocco are pristine, the costumes are rumple-free, and the entire movie seems to be lit with a sun gun and a reflector. It feels fake, and it looks fake.
Then the end credits began to roll, and they told me, “Directed by Robert Zemeckis.”
Yup, the guy who brought us Cast Away and Flight and Forrest Gump and the Back to the Future trilogy has made a movie that looks a lot closer to The Polar Express (also his) than anything with real people in it.
It’s a shame, too, because there’s actually a better-than-average movie hidden somewhere in Allied. The original script by Steven Knight (who successfully made chess riveting with 2014’s Pawn Sacrifice) is chock-full of secrets and lies and twists and turns, as spy colleagues Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard) navigate the Nazis, love, and one searing accusation.
The movie begins with Canadian spy Max parachuting into the African desert (though it looks more like a CGI Brad Pitt being dropped onto some Hollywood sand), where he is to meet for the first time with his undercover colleague Marion. Their mission is to masquerade as husband and wife and secure tickets to the upcoming Nazi ambassador’s ball, so they can then assassinate him. Along the way, they cat-and-mouse each other, with Marion insisting that she never lets emotions get in the way, and that’s why she’s still alive. Max, meanwhile, is instantly struck, and immediately after they finish the job, he invites her to move back to London and be his wife.
More than a year passes, and Max and Marion are living happily in the suburbs with their baby girl (who was born at a particularly fake-looking moment during The Blitz). Max is then called into a meeting in a top-secret meeting basement room, where he’s told by his steely superiors that they suspect Marion of being a German double agent; they’re setting a trap for her, and they’ll know in 72 hours if she’s who she’s pretending to be or not.
It’s here where Knight’s screenplay particularly shines. Every look, everything Max and Marion say to each other, every furtive glance from a shadowy character on the street makes us more and more suspicious. Is Marion really a spy, or is this just a test Max’s superiors are administering before offering him a top-level promotion?
Cotillard more than holds up her end of the bargain, playing Marianne with such nuance that it’s impossible to get a hint of who she may or may not be. It’s a riveting performance, but it also makes Pitt look like a rank amateur by comparison, and the two actors’ obvious lack of chemistry doesn’t help.
It’s not too terribly difficult to imagine that Allied might have been an admittedly junior version of Casablanca or The English Patient in a perfect world, but that would have required not only Pitt’s absence but also the presence of a director who didn’t (presumably) just get dropped on his head.