Sometimes I feel cynical about America’s contemporary cinematic craftsmanship. Hollywood fills theaters with pictures using plain television-style coverage filmed in a nervous attempt to simply finish the shooting day. Well, I’m happy to report Allied, the new WWII spy thriller from acclaimed director Robert Zemeckis, has helped elevate my spirits. The film’s seasoned director demonstrates so much confidence in his master artistry it makes for a captivating time at the movies.
In a plot genuinely deserving the adjective Hitchcockian, Allied tells the tale of Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), two experienced undercover agents paired together for a mission to kill a German ambassador in Casablanca. Of course, they fall in love, marry, and start a family in Hampstead. But when Canadian intelligence informs Max that Marianne is possibly a German spy, Max is forced to take matters into in own hands to prove his wife’s innocence. If he fails to do so in three days, he’s ordered execute her.
Allied avoids all narrative traps in its storytelling. The mystery endures throughout the whole movie by giving strong arguments for and against Marianne being a spy. I also enjoyed how the film takes its time to tell its story. The first act shows how Max and Marianne fall in love in Casablanca. It spends as little time as necessary on the assassination mission’s expositional details. Instead it has deliberately paced sequences honing in on their growing romance. Steven Knight’s well-structure screenplay contains engaging scenes plausibly building upon each other. I appreciated Knight for crafting a thematically strong story without adding any lame prose. The dialogue is cleverly written, with a subtle liveliness and delicacy of the language during Hollywood’s Golden Age that the entire cast seem to have a great time delivering their lines.
Zemeckis makes Knight’s text only richer with his brilliant direction. He knows what’s important in each scene and how to creatively communicate it visually. The mise-en-scene is amazing; a close-up of a fan opens the scene where things first get hot and steamy between Max and Marianne. It is a hot Moroccan day and the romantic tension is building. The fan remains throughout and works as a great device to help augment the scene. More discretely, Max sits in his car on a rainy day, dreading the looming hours ahead of him. His windshield wipers are on, ticking like an arrogant clock. Details like these are all over the movie and add so much.
His camera placement tells audiences all the information he wants them to know. Whether he wants to build romantic tension, emotional distance, suspenseful mystery, or important motifs, Zemeckis has the right lens and angle to show it. His blocking is masterful; the dialogue could have been erased entirely, and the movie would still make sense.
Of course, if the dialogue was absent and the movie still proved effective, then the performances must be on point. Superstars Pitt and Cotillard show great chemistry together, but the supporting players all play well and enhance the central character developments of their marquee peers.
There is so much more in Allied that is just so strong. The production design not only reproduces the WWII era but also reflects each moment emotionally and thematically. I loved the scene where Max tries to avoid looking at Marianne undressing but can’t because they’re in a room littered with mirrors. The editing builds a lively pace. The special effects are convincing, especially in those scenes involving air raids. The sound design is fantastic adds as much emotionally as the precisely designed visual compositions. My only criticism is the epilogue, which is totally unnecessary. I wouldn’t be surprised if the studio tampered a bit here. But that’s a small reservation.
I had wondered before I saw Allied if this kind of picture could still be made – and hold up – in 2016. Romance, thrills, WWII, spies, Nazis…all that kind of stuff. Rest assured, not only does it hold up to such lofty expectations, but is very refreshing to watch. Good storytelling is good storytelling, and Robert Zemeckis knows how to do that better than just about anyone else in the business.