Allied exists harmoniously between new and old modes of Hollywood storytelling. Its assignment: present a bygone era in exciting and meaningful new ways. Make a film with a digital sheen and kinetic action, with mature inclinations. But its context is planted firmly in the past – wartime espionage. And what an accomplishment it is.
Misdirection, tight spots, intimacy as danger. Allied is a paperback thriller’s greatest hits compilation. But the film’s plotting is lively and sincere, gussying up the staid tropes of intrigue into immediate pleasures and perils. And perhaps Allied’s most vivid new take is a vision of life beyond all those happy movie endings. Imagine if Rick and Ilsa had to start that life together after Casablanca.
Two Allied forces operatives, a handsome Canadian intelligence officer named Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) and an alluring French resistance fighter named Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), plot to take out Nazis in occupied North Africa. They must avoid being revealed, getting killed, and most dangerously of all, falling in love. Sounds like Graham Greene spliced with an erotic novella, right? But in such a hotbed era, with the dangers of meeting under the worst circumstances, what if people like these actually wound up together? Is love fair in war? Not without great conflict.
Max is a stoic operative. The kind of man incapable of letting in his past for fear of compromising a mission. When he meets up with Marianne, the pair’s attraction is buried under tactics. Of course there’s zero trust. As a character development device, this is a stroke of genius. Where are Max and Marianne, emotionally or professionally, at any given moment? They’re require to act with one another, but they have their own agencies. When do they become genuine?
Now – and this should come as no spoiler, it’s in the marketing – Max and Marianne wed. They even have a child right away. The trust issues would take years of couples’ therapy in 2016, but these two, like so many of that generation, marry fast. They have a child. They’re stationed together in London. They’ve experienced such highs and lows, even killed together, so what can’t they handle?
Accusations of supporting the enemy, for one. Max, a now-jovial husband, is informed that his wife is possibly working with German forces to provide sensitive intelligence. From there, Allied becomes a cat-and-mouse game. An “is she or isn’t she?” that challenges so many assumptions from other movies like this. Reconsider the happy endings you know. And where other stories end, Allied gets going halfway, and the test of Max and Marianne’s marriage is a magnetic conceit that will leave viewers wondering and worrying until the film’s taut finale.
The story moves at a clip (again, like a great paperback thriller), and Steven Knight’s (Eastern Promises, Locke) screenplay takes two potentially rote types and actualizes them with emotions and motivations. Lives we care about. His take on history through Max and Marianne offers something more complicated than country: humanity, and the toll that war takes on it.
As spies, they’re vicious. The two must quickly assimilate to their roles and infiltrate Nazis stationed in Morocco. But not before sizing each other up. Marianne tests and subsequently taunts Max’s libido. She’s an agent of cool, collected chaos, able to push and pull. The life of a party. People love her. But she knows how exceptionally gifted her swagger is. Vatan, on the other hand, clamps down, existing as an introvert. His occasional acts of violence come swiftly, and scarily.
Their union starts with cynical tête-à-têtes. Marianne smirks and sneers while condescending to Vatan’s poor Parisian accent (It’s “Quebecois”). Vatan, in that 1940s alpha-male way, chides Marianne’s combat and weapon skills. The war out there is secondary. It’s spy v. spy first. The relationship is explosive, alluring, and even comical. A page-turner with the kind of moments and conversations that separate the film from its peers.
Take an early scene where Pitt and Cotillard must court a high-ranking Nazi for access to a big party where marks will be. They must ruse an officer named Hobar (August Diehl, Inglourious Basterds) into giving them an invite. Hobar is verminous, and Marianne and Max have to make the guy like them. Marianne is able to butter up Hobar with her smiles, and establishes Max as something of an oaf who likes poker. Well. Hobar loves poker as well.
Hobar wants to play a card game with Max that requires luck, and Marianne can barely contain her worry. The Nazi’s ambivalence toward Max and Marianne only draws out their anxiety even further. And the scene goes on, torturing them a little bit. Who might break? How can this go south? So Max, having shown no signs of actual interest in cards to this point, suddenly shuffles like a crazed magician. Cracking, cutting, setting up the deck. What luck. The Max reveal is hilarious in its surprise, but fair given the level of cloak and dagger that the two deal in.
Robert Zemeckis keeps the film’s pacing snappy with scenes like this. The aforementioned card scene hints at his ability to keep viewers on their toes, a skill he’s honed over the years and employs smoothly in Allied. The film works in misdirection, dizzying character motivations, dangerous ops under the cover of night, and so much more. How covert and overt. And Zemeckis’ CGI usage is still par excellence (perfect recreations of wartime Morocco, an impossible birth during a catastrophic air raid, and one hell of a party interruption with a close shave from a B-52 bomber). But he’s not bragging. He’s plotting. His effects always serve to speak about Max and Marianne.
The film is just a marriage of talent. Knight’s gifts for moralistic intrigue flourish under Zemeckis’ direction. And if it wasn’t clear already, Pitt and Cotillard kill. The two leads are as sharp as they’ve been in years. Nervous yet confident, Pitt’s Max braves treacherous waters despite his growing doubt. It’s a harrowing lead performance, watching a strong man gradually become unhinged. It’s startling to watch Pitt’s braggadocio be challenged this way, and he mines emotions and heartbreak in ways we haven’t seen since the end of Se7en.
Cotillard, on the other hand, offers a chilling study in cool-headed allure. She’s plaintive and coy. She plays with her face and body language to hint at both guilt and innocence at every turn. If the eyes are the window to the soul, Cotillard’s are so big, bright, and open that it’s only natural to second-guess her veneer of openness. Cotillard has a knack for soulful expressionism, and Allied provides her with a classical canvas. It’s a sensational studio job.
At the risk of sounding cliché, Allied is one of those films that has a little something for everyone. There’s suspense. Action. Yuks. Romance. All the euphemisms fit to print on a 1940s movie poster. But Allied’s certainly never too stuffy, and never too showy. It’s just damn fine entertainment.
By layering modern aesthetics atop tried-and-true intrigue, Zemeckis and company have found a nifty way to load TNT inside an old hat. Allied is armed with a certain amount of wit and absurdism that cuts the tension like a concealed knife. Little one-liners, non sequiturs, and romantic patter fill the dialogue. (Never has “show me your chickens” been such a strangely affecting phrase, as in the mouth of Jared Harris as Pitt’s C.O. while in a panic.) There’s lovemaking in a sandstorm. “Perfect day” picnics. Quality old-time romance. There’s even some bold gunplay. Raids and action setpieces right out of The Dirty Dozen. So the next time someone says, “they don’t make ‘em like they used to,” you know where to take your money.