Hard to believe it’s been over a decade since Robert Zemeckis embraced the sleekness of the digital world as a filmmaker and been unfortunately dismissed as a failing artist lost in his modern technical toys… Though it’s true that his current sensibilities often include big, virtuoso set pieces, it’s because his modern oeuvre is defined by finding the small (also see: huge) emotions within the spectacle.
In Flight, Zemeckis finds an interesting humanity in the procedural elements of the plane sequence which he eventually leans on later (not dissimilar from Eastwood’s excellent Sully from earlier this year), while with The Walk’s showstopper finale he finds the power in one man’s ability to imbue the ordinary with extraordinary spirit, cleverly juxtaposing the mundane scuffle of day-to-day life inside the twin towers with Petite’s majestic vision of them connected by his artistry. In Zemeckis’ films we are very small people in a very big world, and what we’re capable of doing despite that. That’s beauty. Which is why his latest, Allied—a glossy throwback to the wartime melodrama of Hollywood past, in which he contrasts the tragic crumbling of the inner lives of people paid to not have inner lives with his biggest spectacle yet, World War II—shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but here we are.
Allied opens with a deep sunset hovering over a vast, empty Moroccan desert as a man, or a package of garments shaped as a man, gracefully parachutes onto it—the desert takes no notice, he’s entirely alone. That man is revealed to be a Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), a Canadian spy working with the British Allied forces, sent on a mission to assassinate a Nazi official in Casablanca. All goes according to plan until he meets the French Resistance fighter he’s meant to collaborate with, Marianne Beasuejour (Marion Cotillard), and the two of them, both accustomed to their life of isolation but not particularly enthused about the grime that comes with the work, realize they share a dream of a simple, quiet, post-war life.
The night before the Nazi dinner they drink up that Moroccan sunset one last time and, for a moment, allow the sandstorm (as opposed to the fog) of war—blowing everyone and everything every which way with no care for where they might land—to sweep them, and each other, up and the deal is sealed… They’re married a month later. Not long after, however, that domesticity they both crave is shaken when the British Forces acquire intelligence that points to Marianne being a Nazi double agent which, if true, protocol dictates Max eliminate the mother of his child.
The pulpy premise (that classic man-forced-to kill-his-Nazi-wife genre) is a gift from screenwriter Steven Knight—a writer not unfamiliar with identity in crisis, the great Cronenberg-helmed Eastern Promises perhaps his finest credit—but so is the framing of this same story as an old Hollywood melodrama which allows for he and Zemeckis to not just pay homage but deliver on the old-school pleasures and thrills of Hitchcock, Hawks, Huston etc… yet also subvert them. While watching I couldn’t help but look past all the Casablanca references and be reminded of Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, another WWII film about how our real identities are a weird, complex combination of the inner self and the performative self (“This is really me, as I am before God,” Marianne says, giving birth on a literal battlefield), and though obviously not as ambitious or powerful, there’s something far thornier here than many will give it credit for.
Pitt instills his Bogart-type with the implied ruthlessness/sadness while Cotillard balances the kind of steely warmth and timelessness only she could deliver, and Zemeckis weaves them—and their excellent costumes, bravo Joanna Johnston—into his pop technique and form simplicity, combining an intimately scaled story of people searching outwards for inward pain with the larger, national urgency of the war itself. (One brilliant suspense sequence during a party weaves these elements perfectly, and five more.)
With Allied, Knight and Zemeckis find deep anguish in how war tears us apart, but also, eventually, an even deeper optimism in our ability to latch onto each other anyway, mining what could’ve easily felt like a derivative genre movie for genuine emotion, something Hollywood has long forgotten how to do.