by Eric Blume
The lovely opening image of Robert Zemeckis’ new film Allied has Brad Pitt falling slowly and soundlessly into the North African desert via parachute. As he walks across the spine of an endlessly long sand dune, the film evokes the luxurious opening of The English Patient and of course the granddaddy of desert films, Lawrence of Arabia. And Pitt’s arrival into Casablanca, Morocco tees up memories of the Bogart-Bergman classic. Zemeckis positions us exactly where he wants us to be: open to the possibility of the pleasures of those highly-romantic, old-school pictures that we truly don’t see anymore...
Allied is the story of two spies (Canadian Pitt and French Marion Cotillard) who are assigned to be man and wife, only to become man and wife upon completion of their mission, only then for husband Brad to be told that wife Marion may be an undercover spy for the Germans.
It’s an ideal movie-movie premise for a big-budget star-pair vehicle. Zemeckis not only knows the kind of movie he’s making, but he doesn’t shy away from it or apologize for it, either. He keeps his two stars, immaculately-coiffed and beautifully-lit, front and center to accentuate their impossible perfection. The movie is made with intelligence and care, and he’s unafraid to push for a nostalgic emotionalism, without going soggy.
The Pitt-Cotillard pairing is inspired. Surely two of the most physically stunning creatures to ever stand in front of a lens, these two are also first and foremost character actors who tend to underplay. Pitt fares less well, but partly because in his now 20+ year career, he hasn’t quite been able to fully harness these sorts of roles that require both his star power and his now-estimable acting technique. Generally Pitt’s best work comes when he gets to riff on his own charisma (Fight Club, Moneyball) or play against type with out-there enthusiasm (12 Monkeys, Inglorious Basterds). His Allied role falls in the same world as his turn in Troy or Fury…he brings the movie-star dynamism but forgets to create a wholly original character. Still, he has a well-modulated slow-burn sequence at the top of the second hour that feels lived-in and adds some weight to the denouement.
Cotillard, who has clocked in two of the best performances this decade (Rust and Bone and Two Days, One Night), keeps surprising with her versatility. She’s never been asked to summon the kind of Hollywood starriness she has here, and it seems to come effortlessly. Zemeckis taps into both her kittenish sexuality and her ethereal mystery in equal dose, and her sheer casting lends authenticity to the proceedings. She slinks through the first half of the film as a glorious clotheshorse, and you believe her in all elements of her character (as a resistance fighter, a crafty spy, a doting mother). It’s easy to underestimate her accomplishment here: she’s fully assured and keeps Pitt on his toes.
Don’t get me wrong: Allied is complete hogwash. There’s not a lot of there there, and what is there is ornamental folly. The story could have been an interesting metaphor for infidelity of a larger scale, and what a man will do when he’s driven to despair by it. But that’s not what Zemeckis is up to. Instead, he wants us to go back to the joys that old Hollywood films could bring us: being swept up in international intrigue and being bewitched by the magnetism of two beautiful stars made for the cinema. On this level, Zemeckis casts his spell.