If every story, as some will tell you, owes a debt, in one way or another, to Shakespeare, perhaps every movie owes a debt, in one way or another, to “Casablanca”, even if “Casablanca” owes a debt to “Algiers.” After all, the themes of Michael Curtiz’s B movie cum masterpiece are tenfold and everlasting, its performers embody the definitive combination of Movie Star and Actor, and the movie itself is as funny as it is sad as it is moving as it is suspenseful as it is timely, then and now. Last year as modern an enterprise as Tom Cruise’s indefatigable “Mission: Impossible” franchise quoted “Casablanca”, going so far as to name its principal female character Ilsa and re-imagining the relationship of “Casablanca’s” romantic principals as a pair of spies whose intentions continually shift. Robert Zemeckis’s “Allied” borrows that idea of two spies in a heated romance whose intentions continually shift and takes it back to “Casablanca’s” WWII era, creating an old world melodrama with glimmers of modernity. It’s a spirited thriller fashioned with impeccable craft, with set designs that seamlessly honor classic Hollywood backlots even as they make way for more new-fangled special effects, and a taste for set pieces rendered with so much delightful verve that it doesn’t matter as much as it might have that “Allied” fails to completely come off.
“Allied” opens on a visually intoxicating sequence of Royal Air Force wing commander Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachuting into French Morocco, one that in terms of narrative efficiency comes across rather superfluous; couldn’t we have just cut to him being handed his fake passport? But that’s okay, because it alludes to Zemeckis repeatedly giving us substantial bang for our buck, and his commitment to conviviality, with notes of earnestness, fills the early sequences as Max makes his way to, that’s right, Casablanca, where he rendezvous with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a French Resistance spy, posing as his wife. They learn to love, so to speak, to carry out an assassination of some requisite Nazis, but they also learn to love on the level, brought home in an extraordinary sequence where they make love in a car during a sandstorm.
This is “Allied” at its operatic best. Why have them simply get tangled up in the sheets of their Casablanca abode when you can wonderfully excise any lilting strings from the soundtrack to instead have the pounding winds and clamoring dust emblemize the roaring passion to which Max and Marianne necessarily surrender, their sex allowed to play out in a more frank manner than the 1940s, a perfect blending of the way movies were and the way they are. Oh, it’s something else. It’s so good, in fact, that it sort of makes the actual assassination in the next scene beside the point, and heck, Max feels that beside the pointness too, because as they get make their getaway he asks Marianne to marry him.
Their marriage, which includes the birth of a daughter during an air raid, a dramatization of action so wonderfully overblown I laughed out loud, is economically introduced as entirely true – until, that is, the turn. That turn was already revealed, per Zemeckis tradition, in the trailer, but feel free, reader, to skip out if you’re cold and would like to stay that way, unless you can guess what’s coming, which you likely can. Max is summoned by a suitably snooty superior (Simon McBurney) who explains they have strong reason to believe Marianne is a German spy and that if they conclude she is then Max has gotta ante up and ice his daughter’s mother. Yikes.
That is not particularly light-hearted fare, it goes without saying, but Zemeckis and writer Steven Knight have no interest in truly psychologically unpacking what his discovery might mean; they are simply interested in using this discovery to generate suspense. Is she a spy or isn’t she, that’s all that really matters, marking it as a disappointingly simple rendering of what otherwise suggests a compelling deep dive into the darkest matters of the soul.
As the question of Marianne’s identity plays out, Cotillard strikes just the right notes, leading us on without leading us on, while Pitt, as he does throughout the entire movie, simply broods, which is made that much more alarming given his instructions by higher-ups to act as if nothing has changed. Granted, his wife’s a spy and that’ll leave a guy stricken. But then again, he is established as some sort of top league agent of espionage and whereas in all instances Cotillard allows Marianne to effortlessly blend, Pitt works so hard to blatantly evince his character’s internal anguish that, frankly, he stands out like a sore thumb. He’s just about the worst spy you’ve ever seen.
At the same time, however, Pitt’s endless moping actually aids the conclusion, not to be revealed, transforming it from plain tragedy to stately battle readiness. Marianne might recede to the side of most of the back half of this movie to make way for the man, but perhaps she fails to receive equal time because whereas her man struggles with the emotional necessities of duty, she remains eternally rock ribbed. And when push comes to shove, the woman’s the one who’s got the chutzpah to do what needs to be done.