Director: Robert Zemeckis
Few landscapes are as tired and well-worn as that of WWII. The convenience of it is clear as day for any filmmaker: the stakes are perilously high, the tragedy is in biblical proportions, and the good and bad are painted in the thickest coats of black and white. As such, it really takes a great cinematic artist to bring us something out of the box. Aside from this year’s overlooked gem, AGNUS DEI, and the magnum opus that was last year’s SON OF SAUL, I frankly fail to remember a WWII drama released after 2010 that is worth my two cents. Cue Robert Zemeckis, a filmmaker so versed in the language of pure, unadulterated Hollywood cinema that even his stalest projects are undeniably effective. As someone who was never much of a Zemeckis fanboy, I didn’t have high hopes for his 2016 release, ALLIED, but stepping into the theatre to experience the film only reminded me that the same man that brought us FORREST GUMP, FLIGHT, CAST AWAY and BACK TO THE FUTURE isn’t going to actively disappoint me.
Its narrative is no more complex than the trailer might imply: A French and an American operative fall in love while en route to assassinate a German ambassador in Casablanca. A year later, the British government suspects the French spy of being an undercover German agent, tearing apart the family that these two lovebirds have built. Zemeckis’s script plays with a certainty that feels willfully traditional to the standards of classic Hollywood entertainment. Frankly, it’s quite endearing to find an active practitioner of such an old-school approach. It’s endlessly charming and thoroughly gripping, and although there’s little in the room of theme and depth, this is a confident emotional rollercoaster, filled to the brim with great spectacle. Consequently, the drama is palpable and emotions run high, but thanks to the assured directorial control at play here, ALLIED is far more engaging than one would expect.
MR. AND MRS. SMITH gets a wacky period-prequel
It is paramount that readers understand this: ALLIED is a WWII film that works because it is not actively involved with commenting on the war itself. As much as it’s cloaked in the attire of a period piece, ALLIED only necessitates its setting in order to service the core conflict. It could otherwise be set in any wartime era, but as explained earlier, WWII simply works best due to the ease of painting Nazis as conniving villains. It took a few minutes for me to accept it, but ALLIED is the classic Hollywood film of the year. It is admittedly by-the-numbers in approach. The narrative doesn’t surprise all too much, and its drama ticks like a tightly wound watch, but by God if it isn’t effective.
Marion Cotillard and Brad Pitt deliver a lovely on-screen chemistry, and the richness of Pitt’s internal struggle is among his finest performances since his 2011 double-whammy in MONEYBALL and THE TREE OF LIFE. Each set piece works organically within the confines of the film’s emotional thrust. When Cotillard and Pitt are making passionate love, they are isolated inside of a car, trapped by a sandstorm. When they see their daughter for the first time, it’s in the middle of an air raid. When the peace of their domestic life is falling to pieces, a downed German plane nearly destroys their home. Zemeckis incorporates his action holistically, elegantly framing the internal and external struggles within the same image.
Already anticipating the sequel, 2Hot2Kill
Despite all its shortcomings as a rather inoffensive, template drama, the one thing that cannot be denied is that ALLIED is a gorgeous film. And that is perhaps where Zemeckis really took my breath away. I came into this experience with a certain stigma against the film’s overuse of computer generated backdrops, but despite the abundance of green screen, ALLIED really knows how to navigate its camera. This is a marvelously beautiful film, and boasts some of the prettiest controlled camerawork I’ve seen all year. Admittedly, nothing truly innovative is accomplished here, but each set piece simmers with a propulsive action that really reaffirms the talent of such an established director. It is, in that way, much like watching a Spielberg film. Even its least interesting moments showcase a knack for geography, composition, and sense of place that many action contemporaries completely flunk at.
ALLIED finds itself in an odd halfway zone. It’s a shining example of great filmmaking front and back, but it harbors the shortest of shelf-lives. Cotillard and Pitt perform to the best of their abilities, but when dealing with two actors of such magnitude (and such a diverse catalogue), nobody will look to use a staunchly traditionalist Hollywood drama as their point of reference. Zemeckis has showcased phenomenal vision with his latest endeavor, yet ALLIED feels somewhat out of time. It is a film that arguably outdoes many of 2016’s releases in terms of sheer formal charm, propelling itself with the adventurous momentum of a jet plane and the emotional ease of a 1950s Romance. But what I gained from the experience is minimal to say the least. It is Hollywood at its finest: true popcorn cinema.