Allied is a really good, if not quite great, throwback to old-school epic personal Hollywood melodramas.
The phrase “they don’t make em like that anymore” was tailor-made for a film like Allied. Films like Allied, for a time, were one of the cornerstones of Golden Age Hollywood. Epic, often war-set, romance melodramas cleanly split into two distinct parts, that are powered and anchored by gorgeous Movie Stars with bags full of charisma and sexual tension that radiates off every frame. Where the scope is intimate, with the stakes being personal, despite being set in epic situations, like WWII, but the emotions and manner of expressing said are large and occasionally ridiculous. They don’t make em like that anymore, but Allied at least proves that the reason for that is nothing to do with the formula itself, which still has an intoxicating allure to it, particularly in this age of loud relentless CGI megabusters.
You can split the film into two neat hour-long chunks – and, for the record, I am going to reference the big twist that kicks off the second hour since it’s been spoiled in all the trailers – although both parts are still romantic slow-burn thrillers, it’s merely the tone that changes. The first hour is set in 1942 Casablanca, just in case you thought this was a film that was going to half-ass the old-school homaging, as Canadian Intelligence Officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is parachuted behind enemy lines on assignment from the top brass. His objective is to meet up with undercover French Resistance agent Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), infiltrate the party of the German representative there with her, and assassinate him. The pair have to fake being husband and wife in order to pull off the hit but, wouldn’t you know it, they both fall in love with each other for real, and escape to London after the job is complete to get married and start a family. The second hour confronts Max with a startling claim: Marianne may actually have been a deep-cover German spy the whole time, and if the accusation is true, then he is duty-bound to kill her himself or they will both be executed.
It’s a very classical set-up, and director Robert Zemeckis goes all-in in replicating the set designs and imagery of those Golden Age Hollywood epics as best he can, augmented by some seemingly-purposefully unconvincing CGI. There’s a genuine feel of self-conscious, for lack of a better term, classiness to the whole enterprise, the kind that Hollywood once took pride in being the only medium properly capable of depicting. It’s there in the costumes, in the period set designs, in the measured approaches to camera movements and editing. Zemeckis directs the hell out of all of this, getting a chance to hone his skills at crafting tension as Steven Knight’s script throws every Hitchcock-style suspense-builder in the book at the film – cars not starting immediately, covert jail breakouts being suddenly interrupted by German garrison, a cosmic countdown filled with equal parts anticipation and quiet dread.
He appropriately swings for the fences with his direction, as these epics are wont to do, and whilst that does mean that there are the occasional sequences that can tip over into being so melodramatic that they’re hard to take seriously – there’s the already-infamous sex scene in the middle of a fake-looking CG sandstorm, of course, but that’s soon topped by a sequence of Marianne giving birth right in the middle of The Blitz mid-bombing – that also doesn’t mean he’s directing them wrong. His direction is always appropriate for the material and that staunch commitment to the bit, refusing to pull back from grand emotions no matter how silly it may risk ending up, is what lends the film its charm and why I could honestly envision a version of this film that existed 50 or so years ago, just maybe with more convincing special effects.
In fact, that deliberately classy feel is what makes it all the more of a jarring shock when characters start swearing or when violence occurs in bloody, messy circumstances. It comes off as a cracking of the veneer, a puncturing of the deliberately phony façade that these films construct for themselves, and it’s a contrast that I feel doesn’t quite work. The film goes to such great lengths to mimic those old-fashioned melodramas in tone, style, form and function that every errant “fuck” or blood squirt during one of the brief shootouts feels like a betrayal of all that effort. A jolting jarring reminder that this was a film conceived and made in the 2010s and that the lines and limits marking “classiness” have laxed and moved somewhat.
That’s not what keeps Allied from being great, though. What keeps Allied from being great is two unavoidable problems that are symptomatic of the differences in Hollywood filmmaking from the considered Golden Age and Today, and which can’t help but bring the film down as a result. The first is that Brad Pitt turns out to be all wrong for the material. A film like this requires a pair of Movie Stars to top-line it and carry proceedings almost entirely on their own backs; they live and die based on the quality of the leads. Cotillard is fantastic, for the record, she turns out to have been born to play this kind of role, commanding the screen with intensity and capable of selling any emotion required with the commitment and grandiosity that this kind of film and story demands. She’s a Movie Star and capably supports the film on her shoulders.
Her on-screen partner, however, just isn’t up to the task. I get why Pitt works on paper – he is a bonafide Movie Star, and one of the last ones we have now that the Hollywood system is transferring away from making Movie Stars and instead relying solely on Characters to drive public interests – and he is really good in the second half when the tone turns more dour and paranoid. The issue is that he never fully convinces in the romance with Cotillard. Where there should be tangible sparks, there instead is a live-wire bombshell rubbing up against a damp squib; Pitt’s smoulder is more like a Living Statue coming to the end of his 9-hour work day who is just ready to go home already. There’s no chemistry there, so we get this gaping void where the emotional connection that should push the film over into being great is completely missing because Pitt just cannot keep up. He may be a Movie Star, but he’s out of his depth in this kind of role and it’s painfully obvious as you watch him attempt to “flirt” with Cotillard.
The other problem is one of structure. More specifically, at about 2 hours dead, Allied is too short. I know that this sounds insane given how we are living in the era of needlessly-overlong blockbusters, but Allied really is at least 30 minutes too short. This kind of melodramatic personal epic, where proceedings are neatly divided into two distinct yet united parts, back in the day would have been about 2 and a half hours long, plus an intermission in the middle. I know this may not sound to everyone’s taste, but it really is something that this film needed to have. That additional half hour would have given the film a chance to breathe more, to fill out its edges with more character-based scenes of our two leads connecting with each other to fully sell the romance, of more scenes of Max conducting his own investigation into whether Marianne really is a German spy so that the eventual answer connects with a stronger punch. As is, both parts feel cut down just a little too much; it needs that slight over-indulgent shagginess.
So, Allied isn’t great, even though it is very easy to tell as you’re watching it exactly how it could have been tweaked to become great – there’s also some criminal wasting of Lizzy Caplan, as Max’s lesbian Army sister, going on here. That is a shame, but it’s not really a dealbreaker. Fact is, Allied was one of the most purely enjoyable new release films I’ve had the pleasure of watching at the cinema in a good while (if we’re going by the date of my first viewing of Arrival for the record). Zemeckis, it turns out, is really adept at conjuring up classic Thriller tension, helped by another strong Steven Knight script, and the commitment by all parties involved to invoking that old-fashioned melodrama feel, even if it doesn’t go quite as far as it should have, gives the film a refreshing identity that’s a nice change of pace from the fare normally released around about this time.
They really don’t make em like Allied anymore. They still don’t, due to that shortened runtime and the lack of available substitutes for a miscast Brad Pitt, but Allied gets closer than most and is a more than enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours in the cinema.