Movie Review: “Allied”

Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Matthew Goode, Jared Harris
Robert Zemeckis

Robert Zemeckis typically makes big pieces of popcorn entertainment. Admittedly, the “Back to the Future” and “Forrest Gump” director’s most recent films have been more distancing than enthralling, but his latest, the World War II romance “Allied,” is one of his more human and tangible movies yet. It’s also his most purely enjoyable film since “Cast Away.”

Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight open the story with Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting down into the French Moroccan desert. It’s quite an image – one that relies on obvious visual effects – but it grabs the viewer’s attention with silence and curiosity, dropping them into the story along with Max. The agent is then picked up by an unnamed man and told that he must meet his wife, fellow special operative and French Resistance spy Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), for dinner. Max and Marianne’s mission is simple: play house convincingly enough for the Germans in Casablanca, make some important contacts, and get into the right room to kill a high-ranking German ambassador. Their mission goes according to plan, but what they didn’t expect is that they would fall in love in the process.

Once the mission is complete, Max asks Marianne to return to London with him. The two have a daughter they deeply love, but their lives begin to crumble when Max is informed by a mysterious (and higher ranking) S.O.E. official (Simon McBurney) that his wife is a spy for the Nazis. If the source is correct, Max will have to shoot his wife or else he’ll be executed. A plan is put into motion – leak information to Marianne and see if it gets to the enemy – but with each passing minute, Max can’t handle the thought that the woman he loves is a double agent.

It’s a great conflict for a story. The fear Max has over his wife feels real, and that fear is expressed by a noticeably subdued Pitt. Sometimes he’s a little too understated, but after Max learns his wife may be a spy, the way Zemeckis’ camera tracks the actor and focuses on his face, he truly sells the character’s pain and confusion without saying a single word. It’s a fine piece of acting following one of the most tense scenes in the movie, in which three characters are simply standing in a small, mundane room talking. While Marianne is slightly undermined by the final minutes of the film, which are a slight disappointment, Cotillard’s performance keeps the audience on their toes. She never telegraphs too much about the character’s motivations, whether they’re innocent or not. Cotillard is a fundamental part of what makes the film such a fun guessing game.

There’s a charisma and glamour to Pitt and Cotillard’s performances and the way Zemeckis and frequent collaborator Don Burgess shoot them. When Pitt steps out of a fancy black car, dressed in the most dapper suit imaginable, it’s just pure eye candy and the kind of movie star moment you want from a picture of this scale and genre. The great Joanna Johnston, a costume designer Zemeckis has worked with many times, gives Max and Marianne (and the film) a great sense of style.

There’s also the kind of top-notch sequences expected from a filmmaker with Zemeckis’ talents. His use of silence, time and point-of-view is exciting and sometimes unsettling, especially in the third act when we see more from Marianne’s perspective. During two great scenes, Zemeckis uses rain, windshield wipers and all these little elements to create a remarkable sense of unease. Those expertly crafted moments of suspense help make “Allied” a good and mostly consistent piece of spectacle.