In the aftermath of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998), it’s mostly been decided that the rose-colored tint of a World War II thriller is something to do away with.
Gone are the intrigue-filled days of “Saboteur” (1942) and “Ministry of Fear” (1944). We now have the gritty “Fury” (2014) and the visceral “Unbroken” (2014) to contend with. Even Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” (2009), arguably as brutal as it is fantastically fun, seems to prefer callous carnage over eye-catching, treacherous artifice.
It’s not so much that I want movies circling around WWII to be flirty and fun. It’s more that it’s a rarity to see something akin to “To Have and Have Not” (1944) in our cynical modern times, and sometimes one can yearn for the era wherein being an anti-hero or a femme fatale weren’t always backed by the karmas of real life.
Often missing from our cinematic landscape is a sense of razzly dazzly escapism – realism is good and fine, sure, but every now and then is it preferable to sit in the company of a feature that exists within an otherworldly galaxy in which it’s clear that we’re watching appealing reverie rather than knockabout verisimilitude.
So “Allied” (2016), written by Steven Knight (“Eastern Promises,” “Pawn Sacrifice”) and directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Forrest Gump,” “Cast Away”), is invigorating in that it sees the beauty in the romanticized, propaganda-bent war thrillers of the Hollywood Golden Age. Devised is not just a sumptuously made popcorn flick but also a smartly executed pastiche, reflecting the textures and colors of Warner Bros. during the 1940s without losing sight of the modern-day attributes that disallow it from completely standing as an homage.
Set in 1942, “Allied” follows Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), an intelligence officer en route to Casablanca, Morocco to assassinate Germany’s bloodthirsty ambassador. To ensure convincing insinuation into the life of the man he’s tasked with killing, Vatan is partnered with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a French resistance fighter reeling from the recent compromising of her team of revolutionaries. Posing as a married couple, they transform themselves quickly and easily. So much so that the twosome eventually give into their looming physical attraction to one another and fall passionately in love.
The mission inevitably proves to be successful, and not long after its completion does Vatan ask for his partner’s hand in marriage. The wedding comes swiftly, and the duo moves to London, England, settles down, and quickly become parents to a baby girl named Anna. All should be blissful.
But Vatan’s euphoria turns into high anxiety when his superiors inform him that the Marianne Beauséjour he knows and loves might not be Marianne Beauséjour at all. The woman in question was killed in France not long before the couple met. The person sleeping next to him night after night could be, in fact, a German officer with sinister intent.
Vatan is ordered to write out a misleading piece of intel and leave it out somewhere obvious in the home. If the false information being written comes up in German transmissions, then it will be known that Beauséjour is really the dangerous spy she’s suspected of being. If nothing shows up, Vatan will be able to continue enjoying the routine of happy domesticity. No matter the outcome, though, Vatan is forced to live with severe conjecture for much too long a period – and with the knowledge that he’ll be the one to execute his wife if she’s actually the slippery monster she’s purported to be.
While “Allied” never stops being a hoot throughout its run – it’s as old-fashionedly pleasuresome as it is tautly designed – I like it best before the storyline centered around the potential for betrayal sets in.
Throughout the first hour or so, when Vatan and Beauséjour are still getting to know one another and when the sexual tension runs high, I found myself reminded of the opulent deception of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946), with everything stinking of expensive elegance all the while maintaining an undercurrent of deafening jeopardy.
It’s delightful watching Pitt and Cotillard trade barbs in an atmosphere of luxurious intrigue, dressed to the nines and attempting not to overthrow the platonic professionality resting between them. When the enemy of the first act is gunned down, it’s not hard to imagine the film ending there and naming itself a brilliant short. What Knight, Zemeckis, and his actors have done is astounding: they harken back to the days where Bogie and Bergman were king and queen without ever losing the movie’s individuality among its contemporary peers.
“Allied” still maintains its momentum when its main plot makes way and smoothly transitions from state-of-the-art spy caper to “Suspicion” (1941) imitator. Anxiety runs rampant and our interests are groomed, even after the mostly predictable finale introduces itself and we’re left reeling. Pitt and Cotillard, of course, are key, splendid even: Pitt has enough classic masculinity within him to fuel the fires of five more action movie heavyweights, and Cotillard, even better, is the competent, sexy femme not seen nearly enough within the classic Hollywood that produced so many dramas of “Allied’s” kind.
In being so archaically stylized, though, there’s always a risk that artistry and performative aptitude might conquer story-based urgency. And that’s one of “Allied’s” few flaws – it’s suspenseful and it’s beautifully mounted, but because it’s decently familiar, there’s an underlying feeling of seen-it-all-before comfort that prevents it from achieving total vitality. But it’s a joy all the same. A star-driven epic of its caliber is a deviation from the norm, and jubilee proliferates when in its company.