Whatever one might think of Allied, a glossy World War Two espionage thriller starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as secret agents who try to forge a viable family life in the midst of a world on fire, it’s worth celebrating that Robert Zemeckis is firmly dedicated to filming flesh-and-blood people again. Zemeckis has always been a superb craftsman, with a particular gift for assimilating technical advances in the art of moviemaking, but he lost over a decade of his creative life pursuing the sterile art of motion-capture animation, nearly getting lost in the uncanny valley for good. It’s hard to think of a major filmmaker who came so close to being ruined by technology, just as it’s hard to believe that anyone except film historians will be watching Beowulf, The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol even a decade hence.
In part, it’s a movie about how silken fabrics fall on Marion Cotillard’s frame
Rather than pushing towards the future, Alliedlooks to the past, and not only in terms of its plot. The movie begins with Pitt’s Canadian spy, Max Vatan, parachuting into the Moroccan desert, and within minutes we’re in Casablanca - and, perhaps more to the point, in the film Casablanca. Max and Cotillard’s Marianne Beauséjour are highly trained agents with a deadly, top-secret mission, but that doesn’t prevent them from looking fabulous while doing so. Alliedis a movie about loyalty and trust, about the bonds that hold people together and sometimes blind them, but it’s also a movie about how silken fabrics fall on Marion Cotillard’s frame, and how dashing Brad Pitt looks in a knitted v-neck. Joanna Johnston has been Zemeckis’s costume designer for nearly three decades – and is therefore partly responsible for the person who walked by me on Halloween when I was wearing a down vest and called out, “Hey! You look like Back to the Future!” – but between this and last year’s The Man From U.N.C.L.E., it feels like she’s abruptly risen to a new and dazzling level of accomplishment.
The heat of battle
Although there’s no show-stopping set piece to rival Flight’s plane crash or The Walk’s Twin Towers tightrope act, Allied is technically immaculate from stem to stern. Every shot framed by Don Burgess feels purposeful, every one of Mick Audsley and Jeremiah O’Driscoll’s cuts precise. It’s a movie that ought to be studied in film schools, both for its technical achievements and as an example of how it’s possible to get every one of them right and still produce something that feels hollow inside.
The most inventive sequence in the movie involves the Pitt and Cotillard coupling
Casablanca is driven, above all, by a call to self-sacrifice, the idea that next to the struggle against the threat of global fascism, whether one man and one woman end up together or not doesn’t amount to a hill of beans. Allied is about the hill of beans. It’s set against the same backdrop, and given the alarming resurgence of neo-Nazi ideology around the world, it stops you dead the first time a swastika armband swoops in front of the lens. But Allied’s Nazis are ultimately no more frightening than Top Secret’s.
Zemeckis has always styled himself as an apolitical filmmaker, claiming that the overtly right-wing Forrest Gump was intended to poke fun at both ends of the political spectrum, but here that disdain for taking sides robs the movie of what ought to be its core conflict. Once Max and Marianne tumble into each other’s arms we’re mainly worried about whether they’ll be found out, not whether their romantic entanglement might end up getting anyone else killed. The most inventive sequence in the movie doesn’t involve spy craft or the art of war but the two characters coupling in a car in the midst of a Moroccan sandstorm, the camera circling around their increasingly unclothed bodies as the wind whips ever-faster around them.
Its classical Hollywood reference points notwithstanding, the movie Allied most resembles is Zemeckis’s What Lies Beneath, which was also a Hitchcockian genre piece motivated at heart by questions of fidelity. (There’s an intriguing overlap, too, with Mr and Mrs Smith, in which Pitt and Angelina Jolie played professional liars who could never quite be sure if their love for each other was a deep-cover con, and last year’s Jolie-directed By the Sea, which was similarly animated by the pleasures of gazing at Pitt’s body and a woman in negligees.) Here, war is hell not because good people die, but because it makes it impossible to trust even the people you think you know, and those suspicions don’t end simply because an assignment does. Allied spans countries and continents, but the world it’s concerned with feels awfully small.
And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called “If You Only Read 6 Things This Week”. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Earth, Culture, Capital, Travel and Autos, delivered to your inbox every Friday.