Allied is an old-fashioned, romantic World War 2 melodrama. Director Robert Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight are ambitious: the story spans several years, with its lovers hopping from one country to another. Whereas most end of year films are too long nowadays – I’m looking at you, The Revenant – Allied suffers from being too short. Some sequences are rushed, and there is so much incident in just over two hours that it’s hard to follow characters along their complex emotional journey. There are some bravura action sequences, and yet it falters in its saccharine, pat mix of the personal and political. By striving for poignancy, Knight robs his heroes of plausibly human choices.
Brad Pitt plays Max, an intelligence officer who parachutes into the North African desert. His cover is that he is the husband of Marianne (Marion Cotillard), a french socialite. Their plan is to infiltrate a party thrown by the Nazi ambassador in Casablanca, then kill him. Before the big operation, however, they talk and test each other. Spies can have sex, Marianne reasons, but any emotional connection is where they get into trouble. They have sex, obviously, and survive the deadly shoot-out in the ambassador’s house. Max has an unusual idea: he suggests Marianne move to London with him. Other than the occasional air raid siren, things are idyllic; Max and Marianne even have a daughter together. But one day Max receives some news from his superior officer (Jared Harris), who suggests Marianne is not what she seems.
The war does not really interest Zemickis, although he and his production team benefit from gorgeous sets and period costumes. Instead, Allied uses the trapping of history to deepen the bond between Max and Marianne. They consummate their relationship during a sandstorm, for example, and their daughter is born while bombs drop near the hospital. Such heightened drama are intense, and while they would fit on a more epic canvas, but here they feel crammed – like a hurried summary. The episodic structure is also a little strange: Knight’s screenplay covers three years quickly, and spends a plurality of the film on a single weekend. Trust, deception, and loyalty are the big themes of Allied, but Zemeckis tells more than he shows, so those themes carry little weight with them.
Not surprisingly, the strongest sections of Allied are the most violent. There’s the aforementioned ambassador shoot-out, plus a tense sequence where Max flies into Nazi-occupied France. The characters are terse and deadly, relying more on cold-hearted realism than heroics. They’re successful, and yet the maudlin romantic scenes do not coalesce well with them. Brad Pitt has made many WW2 films before, and his Max is wooden, almost passionless. The final scenes require some fairly complex rationalizations, including dueling obligations to family and country, and yet plays Max as if he has no inner turmoil, only drive. Cotillard plays a more complex character, selling her contradictory allegiances convincingly. Suffice to say, the pair have a dearth of chemistry, so any hope for tragedy or catharsis is lost.
Some of the best World War 2 films involve resistance fighters, and how they reconcile their goals with their values. Jean-Pierre Melville’s Army of Shadows is the most brutal, a story of French resistance where the “heroes” have absolutely zero hope for survival or glory. Paul Verhoeven’s Black Book is about a Jewish spy who falls in love with a Nazi officer. What unites these films is a pervasive sense of morality, one that overrides any delusions of a future or personal fulfillment. In these films and even exploitation like Inglorious Basterds, there is a pervasive sense that Nazism is evil. Allied never quite shares the same stark moral lines. Max, Marianne, and the others have some sense of duty – including the need for a stiff upper lip – but their purpose is not justified zealotry. The appeal of World War 2 films is the clarity between good and bad. Allied blurs the lines, as many previous war films have, minus the clarity or scope.