Or…Brad, Why You So Blue-Screened, It’s Only WWII
By Paul Mavis
Some time back having written a big reference book on thousands of spy movies (The Espionage Filmography, still available at Kmart, Sears, JC Penny, and wherever fine tobacco is sold), my desire to see subsequent theatrical espionage outings has not been unlike someone’s reaction to being accidentally locked up in a doughnut factory over a weekend: by Monday morning the last thing they want to see is a cruller.
TV trailers for Paramount’s 2016 spy flick Allied, from Huahua Media, British TV production house GK Films, and director Robert Zemeckis’s own ImageMovers studio, moved me only to the extent of wondering 1) how many WWII movies is Brad Pitt going to make in his career? and 2) is Brad Pitt’s plastic surgeon slowly morphing him into Boston Blackie’s Chester Morris? No one else under the age of 75 seemed too interested in catching Allied, either (it grossed a rather pathetic $119 million worldwide, against a production budget alone of $85 million), but I was feeling naughty at the library the other day, so I picked up a Blu-ray copy from the “Librarian Becky Recommends” shelf (a dubious-at-best destination guaranteed to induce giggles anytime a George Clooney or Tom Hanks title is prominently featured).
Imagine my surprise, then, when I was reasonably pulled into Allied’s wartime espionage/romantic double dealings. It’s 1942, and Royal Canadian Air Force intelligence operative Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), working for London’s “impossible missions” outfit, Special Operations, parachutes into French Morocco. His assignment? Liaison (nudge nudge wink wink) with French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), who is in tight with the Vichy government and the German legation, and assassinate the German ambassador. Their cover? They’re married. Both are initially suspicious of each other (she mysteriously lost her entire spy “circuit” in France; his Parisian accent is strictly from The Great White North), but soon amour conquers professional wariness, and before you can say, “Is that a Sten machine gun in your hands or are you just happy to see me?” they zap the ambassador and escape to London, where Max is granted the unusual request of allowing a vetted Marianne to marry him.
A desk job at HQ and a new baby should see Max safely through the remainder of the war, but within a year, Max’s superior, Colonel Frank Haslop (Jared Harris), has some shocking news: SO suspects Marianne of being a German spy. To prove his loyalty, Max must conduct a “blue dye” job on his beloved wife, feeding her false information to see if it winds up in enemy hands. If she is a spy, this “intimate betrayal” demands that Max kill her by his own hand, or face the hangman’s rope for high treason. Ordered not to conduct his own investigation, Max does just that, including leading a raid into France to seek corroborating evidence for—or is it against?—his wife. Is she or isn’t she a spy…and does she or doesn’t she truly love Max?
Allied’s opening shot—a hypnotically slow parachute drop by Pitt into the Moroccan desert—summed up every fear I had going into this spy caper helmed by Zemeckis, the director of increasingly gimmicky trick shot pictures like Forrest Gump, The Polar Express, and Beowulf–a director who never saw a CGI shot he didn’t love (where oh where did the director of that flat-out comedic masterpiece of exuberant, good-natured American greed–Used Cars–go?). Patently, even goofily, fake-looking, Pitt’s CGI parachute drop was inexplicable to me. Why in the world would you fake it? In an interview on the Blu’s disc, the director claims the shot was impossible to actually film. Bullsh*t. You’re telling me Howard Hawks or John Sturges or any other old time Hollywood vet that Zemeckis reportedly venerates couldn’t have taken a crane out to a nearby California sand dune and dropped a stuntman off a wire? Someone else on the production team stated they also went to Morocco to actually 3D map the desert, to make the fake CGI backgrounds absolutely accurate. Really? So instead of that you couldn’t have just taken a second unit out there with a stuntman, and pushed him off a 4-story wooden scaffold?
Weirdly, Allied turns out to be one big blue-screen affair, with almost every shot “painted” with not-entirely-seamless CGI effects to recreate everything from glamourous Casablanca at night, to a cozy Hempstead block of flats. I’m not going to lie and say I prefer CGI to physical recreation (if David Lean wants to build an entire Russian street out of 2×4 flats, and spray paint miles of verdant plain with chalk to make it look like snow, I say, “Oh, good show, David!”), particularly when in Allied’s case, its overuse creates a distinct “dead air,” “black box” ambiance to the proceedings (some old fashioned insistent music cues might have helped this eerily quiet actioner/romance). Almost none of Allied feels “real,” which is of course ironic when that’s the whole crux of screenwriter Stephen Knight’s (Eastern Promises, Seventh Son) story: what is real and unreal in a romance born out of deliberate subterfuge and lies? I wish Zemeckis was smart enough to make his love of technology actually serve this conceit of reality versus deliberate fabrication, to create an environment that was just as untrustworthy as his characters. However, he seems to be using CGI here not to comment on the story’s central theme, but rather just to save money and to avoid shooting on location. He’s going for photo-reality with all that fantasy, and it gives Allied a strange, fairy book tone that’s interesting at first, but ultimately not warranted.
More successful are Allied’s story and performances. For Allied to work at its most basic level, it need only do only one thing: keep us guessing as to whether or not Cotillard is a German spy. And to its credit, Knight’s screenplay kept me in the dark at least until the last two reels. There are more than a few dopey moments in Allied, like Pitt’s completely superfluous sister character (annoyingly played by Lizzy Caplan), made more ridiculous by being drawn as an out-and-proud lesbian officer (yeah…no, they tended to frown on that sort of thing in the RAF back then), or RAF officers snorting coke in front of hundreds of partygoers (again, nope), or getting the year of the London blitz wrong by about two years. But those kinds of flubs are quickly set aside if we’re caught up in the main mystery, and for the most part, Allied keeps our attention.
Zemeckis may be a bit stiff overall in his staging, but his few action scenes come off; much better is his handling of his performers. Pitt, certainly all-American handsome but looking oddly chipmunkish at times (lay off the fillers, dude…), does quite well in that classic Hollywood leading man mode of a taciturn professional warrior who stays alive by keeping his emotions bottled up and his mouth shut. I can’t think of another modern actor today who can tap into that whole zeitgeist that guys like Gable, Taylor, and Holden essayed for decades, and which was largely lost in the 70s, 80s, and 90s (if you suggest Clooney, all I can say is, “Oh, Mary,” and ask you to quit reading now). Too bad, then, that in crucial scenes—such as when he’s told his wife is a suspected spy—Pitt doesn’t rise to those old pros’ level of authoritative and technical assurance (his turn in that scene is particularly vague and unconvincing). Beautiful, sexy Cotillard (La vie en Rose, Inception), on the other hand, is spot on throughout Allied, giving a pitch-perfect rendition of a spy who may or may not be openly lying about openly lying about being in love with another spy. It’s a technically poised turn in an extremely difficult part: she has to be believably alluring and stand-offish at the same time; alternatively emotive and furtive at the drop of a hat. It’s a pity, then, that such an agreeably ambiguous performance is undercut at Allied’s end, when the plot works out only to our well-worn expectations, and not beyond.