**/**** Image A+ Sound A Extras B
starring Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney
screenplay by Steven Knight
directed by Robert Zemeckis
by Bill Chambers
"Back in those days I was much more of a taskmaster. I would make my actors hit those marks and always be in their light, and now I've kind of--I don't care as much anymore. I wouldn't allow there to be a camera bobble in any of those films. If the camera jiggled one frame, I'd have to do the take again. But nowadays, audiences are so different. I don't think they appreciate the attention to detail. Maybe subconsciously they feel it, maybe they don't. Having a perfectly composed shot doesn't matter if you are watching it on an iPhone, does it? You wouldn't see it."
That's Robert Zemeckis, speaking to We Don't Need Roads: The Making of the Back to the Future Trilogy author Caseen Gaines. When I first read those words, I have to admit I had a little moment of "Dylan goes electric" heartbreak, because the precision craftsmanship of Zemeckis's films had always been a comfort. Then I reread them, taking into account the resounding shrug that greeted both his lengthy detour into motion-capture animation and his subsequent return to live-action (Flight), and his sour grapes became considerably more pungent. Many filmmakers relax their standards as they get older; few make a point of announcing it. Fewer still do so with spite. If the prolific Zemeckis is fatigued, he shouldn't pass the buck: it's hard-won--I can't begin to imagine the intensity of effort it took to pull off, say, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, or Death Becomes Her. When he belittles the iPhone he gives away his age (62 at the time), but he also sells himself out, as someone who's been at the forefront of the digital revolution for decades. Of course, between his waffling commitment to 3-D and MoCap and his punking of a nation's kids in a 1989 TV special in which he claimed that Back to the Future Part II's hoverboards were a real technology suppressed by parents' groups, it's hard to take Zemeckis at his word.
One thing is clear from Allied and Zemeckis's previous film, 2015's The Walk: he's just kind of stuck in the Uncanny Valley that stereotyped his animated work. (Flight didn't seem as affected, but as a return to form, its subject matter of a guy coping with both fame and infamy, and struggling to resist old impulses, is telling.) With The Walk, which recreated Philippe Petit's legendary wire-walk between the Twin Towers, it mattered less, since audiences went in disabused of any reality by recent history and really had no reason to see it except to supplement a viewing of James Marsh's Oscar-winning documentary on the same subject, Man on Wire, with dramatizations and IMAX-induced vertigo. But Allied, a throwback to espionage thrillers from the heyday of Hollywood glamour, is so synthetic it can make the period feel not alive again, but undead. In the curious opening shot, a digital stuntman falls to earth on a parachute and does a springy little tuck-and-roll tumble when he hits the ground that's not unlike one of those bizarre somersaults Zemeckis's MoCap characters were always doing. It's an effect he surely would've flagged back when his films were winning back-to-back Oscars for their VFX, though I'm sure it's not as simple as him being less of a taskmaster these days. His values have changed, his tastes--his regard for physics. Mass has largely disappeared from his movies; and, it follows, so has dramatic weight.
The Sim quickly morphs into Brad Pitt, but rather than sell the illusion it has us scrutinizing Pitt's appearance. He looks Benjamin Buttoned. At the very least, his baby blues are an unfamiliar brown, possibly to take the Hitler Youth sheen off him. (He did kinda sorta play a Nazi once, in Seven Years in Tibet, and seems to be atoning for it with Inglourious Basterds, Fury, and now Allied.) The year is 1942, and Pitt's Max Vatan is a Canadian spy in Casablanca not "for the waters," but to ingratiate himself in the social circle of the woman pretending to be his wife, undercover Resistance fighter Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), while the two plot the assassination of the German ambassador. Although they try to keep things professional, the high stakes breed feelings of intimacy to which they finally surrender whilst seeking shelter from a CG sandstorm in their car. Sound-wise, it's a striking interlude, the gusts of wind soundtracking their tryst with the ultimate in heavy-breathing. Yet the visual of dust gathering force as the stars' passions come to a head doesn't quite work, despite being in the cornball tradition of Code-era metaphors for sex. Part of it is that the camera restlessly circles our lovers inside the vehicle, creating competing, redundant storms; and part of it is that the good stuff is well under way before the tasteful cut to the exterior, dampening the cheeky ellipsis it puts on the scene. Mostly, though, the greenscreen vacuum in which Pitt and Cotillard find themselves here and elsewhere is the wrong flavour of artifice, neither anachronistic nor expressionistic enough. Too often merely cheap-looking, it lacks the analog soul of Old Hollywood.
That's not to say that Allied somehow tries and fails to be a slavish pastiche, à la The Good German. More accurately, it's perfumed in the aesthetics of an era. (Some of the allusions to Casablanca are quite striking in colour.) Just by embracing the R rating, Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight innovate the material, flushing to the surface a lot of the sex and violence that would be resigned to subtext in the film's '40s equivalent. In an early, untitled draft of Knight's script, Max's gay sister Bridget (Lizzy Caplan) says she loves the Blitz because it's made people laissez-faire about her lifestyle choices. (I'm paraphrasing.) The line didn't survive, probably because its glib dismissal of the Blitz's 32,000 casualties could've blown up in the filmmakers' faces, but it clearly informs the subtext of a late-film soiree at Max and Marianne's, where a dish of cocaine is passed between Max's stuffed-shirt colleagues, topless women spill out of broom closets, and Bridget kisses her cellist girlfriend (Charlotte Hope) on command. Allied is about people who damn the torpedoes in times of conflict--none more so than Max and Marianne, spies who fuck against protocol, marry against logic, and welcome a daughter, Anna, into the world during a hospital evacuation, with bombs dropping all around them. Despite the overwrought, Sky Captain-y visual tableau, it's hard not to be affected by this latter juxtaposition of hopeful creation and wanton destruction, and the irreverence of the scenario shows Zemeckis hasn't lost his sense of humour.1
He may, however, have lost his groove. Once a crafty engineer of plot who steered his protagonists' fates towards audience eurekas, Zemeckis liberates himself from convention here in much the same way the characters do. Allied is unusually linear, after the initial setup: Max is told he married a German spy in Marianne; against orders and behind Marianne's back, he sets out to disprove it.2 The apologist urge is to call it a maturation of Zemeckis's style, to tell a story so simply and economically (even if we've kind of been here before with Cast Away), but the film feels conspicuously underdeveloped as opposed to streamlined, to the extent that the big reveal seems as if it was decided on a coin toss; it's easy to imagine the opposite outcome without any sort of retrofitting to accommodate it. Once Marianne marries Max she recedes from the narrative, taking a sense of ambiguity--arguably the very appeal of this type of identity intrigue--with her. Her words and gestures in the picture's second half are rarely significant enough to have subtext, and so while it's a point of identification that we don't know if Marianne's an impostor until Max does, the sidelong suspicious glances he casts at his wife are at best only intellectually relatable.
Spoilers ahead--I'll tread lightly. It's reductive besides that Cotillard's role diminishes so much when the character goes from being Tony Montana in an evening gown to doting on a husband and daughter. There's a vague sexism in that, as well as in how the film not only finds homemaking uninteresting, it finds the potential ruse of homemaking uninteresting, too. Yet in a weird way, Allied is a celebration of women, since it ultimately demonstrates that Marianne is far better at compartmentalizing stress than her husband, whose quest to vindicate his wife is a bull-in-a-china-shop op that sends more than one innocent to his death. (He can't even enjoy getting head.) And it unexpectedly honours the strength and sacrifice of mothers in its first grim, then wistful closing moments, but this ending has the temporary impact of sad commercials for greeting cards and minivans, given that Marianne and Anna are, like the leads in those ads, archetypes who generate emotionally-reflexive responses as opposed to fleshed-out human beings who provoke feelings of attachment. (There's pathos there, but for me it came from an awareness of the recent passing of actress Mary Ellen Trainor, Zemeckis's ex-wife and the mother of his firstborn child.) Here's hoping his upcoming adaptation of Marwencol helps Zemeckis rediscover the joy of storytelling and restore his artistic pride.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Allied arrives on Blu-ray from Paramount in a gorgeous, optimal presentation of a state-of-the-art digital feature shot with the 6K Red Dragon (hmmmmm...) and finished in 4K. The 2.38:1, 1080p transfer is rife with detail; whenever faces look a little waxen, you can be sure it's by design. Colours pop and there's real dimension to the image thanks to a solid depth of contrast. Joanna Johnston's sometimes tongue-in-cheek costume design gets the showcase it deserves. I marvelled, in particular, at a loud, Moroccon-flavoured housecoat Max/Pitt wears early on for the precise delineation of each thin stripe, though it's Marianne's seductive silks that are bound to grab attention. They're so tactile it's almost a taunt. A separate Ultra HD release is also available and very tempting. The attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track proves that Zemeckis is still capable of turning on the afterburners with regards to mixing set-pieces (there's an almost musical quality to the Blitz as bombs clobber the subwoofer and hails of gunfire flank the viewer), yet when I think of Allied, I think of its restrained use of score--much of the music is diegetic--and of how Zemeckis finds a remarkable number of variations in the sound of the air around Max and Marianne's loaded silences. Strange to say, the film gets room-tone right, as the lossless audio on this disc will attest.
Ten HiDef making-of featurettes--"Story of Allied," "From Stages to the Sahara," "Through the Lens," "A Stitch in Time," "'Til Death Do Us Part," "Guys and Gals,""Lights, Pixels, ACTION!," "Behind the Wheel," (3:30), "Locked and Loaded," and "That Swingin’ Sound"--can be watched as a combined 68-minute documentary, credited to production house Hurwitz Creative. Screenwriter Knight barely appears, but he opens the piece with a recap of the "true," apocryphal-sounding story on which he based his screenplay. That version has a truly pitiless ending, and would've been a genuine departure for Zemeckis, who's come to be Ron Howard with more grace. As far as these segments go, they're occasionally humbling (I have to admit the film completely sold me on its rooftop mattes and digitally-embellished airfield) and illuminating in their discrete focus on the production. Johnston, for instance, talks about the hummingbird embroidery that lures Max to Marianne early on, crediting the idea to Cotillard and singling out a bit of obvious symbolism in the design I nevertheless missed the first two times around. Pitt--the only major player not interviewed, incidentally--is likewise identified as a key creative participant for suggesting the picture be shot in sequence, the better to shadow all the onscreen getting-to-know-you stuff. But of the three principals, it's Zemeckis who receives the majority of praise--albeit mainly for employing cost-cutting techniques that border on corner-cutting. By the time we reach the section on composer Alan Silvestri, there isn't much gas left in the tank, but all told this is a solid if superficial behind-the-scenes overview. DVD and digital copies of Allied are bundled with the Blu-ray.
1. Ditto a climactic moment where Max can't get a vehicle to start that upends cliché by making said vehicle a Lysander airplane.
2. There are no side stories, really, only biographical details (such as Bridget's lesbianism) and memorable one-scene performances from August Diehl, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode, Tom Padley, and Thierry Frémont (Zemeckis appears to have become hooked on them ever since James Badge Dale's cameo in Flight) that lend texture if not depth to the film.