Robert Zemeckis (Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, Cast Away) has created an unusual semi-old-fashioned war and romance film in Allied. Unfortunately, most of its early press had to do with its stars—Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard—and their non-existent romance that then had nothing to do with Brangelina’s demise. That’s unfortunate not because Allied is a great film, but because such irrelevant distractions tend to overshadow the issue of whether or not the film is even good.
It is good. And no more than that. It’s Casablanca crossed with television’s “The Americans,” with (spoiler alert) a smidge of Se7en. It can’t make up its mind whether it wants to be a classically made, yet generally realistic, film in an old “movie-movie” style, or if its aim is to be a riff on those old films themselves. Zemeckis is sometimes more evocative than telling, and the world he’s created here hangs somewhere between studio-style dramatic and a glossy imitation that threatens to put costume and set design above the story itself. It’s beautiful to look at, and not only because of its two stars. Every radio, truck, chair, suit, dress and glass reminds us that we in the war years (think Mad Men over in wartime London).
Zemeckis is especially good with set pieces, and the film is chock full of them, though they thankfully don’t pull themselves apart from the rest of the film. Action sequences are clear, tense and believable. The sequence where a shot-down plane (in the middle of the London blitz) moves from being the occasion for cheer to becoming a life-threatening crash event (landing who knows where) is a highlight. It’s both a rarity and a sign of the film’s strength that these moments infuse the film with drama and energy rather than function as exciting standalone (and stand apart) sequences.
One thing that doesn’t work is the attempt to “update” the wartime story with so-called modern touches. It’s hard to tell if the F-bombs should be part and parcel of this story (since they’re not generally found in such logical places as battle scenes and activities with a bunch of drunken servicemen). There is also a shoe-horned lesbian relationship that is unrealistic only in its presentation; it’s “out and proud” and so fully and nonchalantly accepted by apparently everyone around them accepted that I thought I was in a time warp. It’s too much of a stretch to think that this relationship and the presence and use of cocaine wouldn’t at least be a tad controversial during the war years—or even commented on. If Zemeckis is simply doing a modern riff on studio-era wartime films, these flourishes might be considered his modern take on the world of the time. If he’s working to recreate the real world of World War II, then he or the script writer are imposing things that take the thinking viewer out of that world.
Of course, aside from the slick and glossy production elements, the film stands or falls on its two huge stars (again reminiscent of Casablanca). Pitt is a character actor with the face and physique of a leading man, and he often seems uncomfortable being the dramatic male lead in a way that actors such as his friend George Clooney do not. He seems to gravitate toward the edges of edgy characters and seems a little ill at ease here as he works to locate his inner leading man. (He also doesn’t sound like anyone who has grown up speaking, or even hearing, French; his accent is softly but strongly American.)
Marion Cotillard, one of the best actresses in the world, is something else altogether. It almost seems as she were trying to bring her brilliance down to Pitt’s level in the way that Gene Kelly brought down and adjusted his dance style to lesser dancers such as Frank Sinatra and Debbie Reynolds. She is effortlessly good, but not in a way that signals to us that she is better than the film she’s currently acting in. (Take a look at her performances in La Vie en Rose and Two Days, One Night to see her reach heights that transcend those admittedly well-made films.) Perhaps her greatest feat here is meeting both Pitt and the film itself on their own level and working with them there.
In a world of noise and adolescent sensibilities, it is refreshing to enjoy an “adult” film that moves at a less than frenetic pace, that tackles issues that are serious, and keeps one guessing until near the end. Allied is too evocative to be as gripping as it could be. But with all its contradictions and confusions, it’s solid enough to be worth watching.
The best part of the film (another spoiler alert): the almost unnoticeable visual trick they play with the title credit.