It is fitting Allied, a glossy new film from Robert Zemeckis, opens on Thanksgiving weekend, because its appeal is not dissimilar from a Macy’s parade. The movie is a shiny empty spectacle in which two performers of balloon-sized star power are paraded down a straightforward, unsurprising route. Zemeckis is too skilled a technician to make it badly, but for all the sharp, clear staging and gleaming period detail, he hasn’t thought through a way to make the screenplay jump into anything resembling life. It’s beautifully inert, handsomely dull. He’s clearly out to make a grand old-fashioned entertainment, a World War II spy picture that – colorful widescreen use of the R-rating aside – could’ve been made in the forties. It starts in Casablanca – a real statement of purpose, that – with two Allied spies (Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) meeting on sand-swept streets. They are to play husband and wife Vichy sympathizers, get invited to the German ambassador’s upcoming party, and then kill every Nazi in the place. That’s a great hook, and afterwards it’ll spin out in what should be gut-wrenching consequences, but instead dwindle to boredom.
The peculiar tension of Zemeckis’s artificial approach is highlighted in the opening shot, a slow move around Pitt parachuting into the desert as he slowly, gracefully, lands upright on two feet with a soft puff of sand. It looks as if he’s standing still with scenery composited in around him, like a promo shot for a Virtual Reality headset. But it’s also a terrifically entertaining dose of stardom as Pitt – perfectly coiffed and tailored – is met by a car in the middle of nowhere. He’s driven to town where he meets Cotillard, who is wearing a glossy dress stunningly draped over her figure. Zemickis is in full command of his dazzling technique, letting the two spies get drawn into a real romance flowering under their cover story. Asked how she can be such an effective spy, Cotillard responds that she keeps the emotions real. Indeed, the same goes from the opening hour of the film, which features elaborate camera fakery and intimate collisions of charisma, climaxing in two moments. First, they finally make love in the back of a car, the camera spinning around the vehicle while a howling digital sandstorm whirls outside. Second, they gun down Nazis at a blood-splattered party. Fun times.
After a decade spent making (underrated) animated films, Zemeckis is now three films into his return to live action. He’s clearly enjoying the full CG complement of tools at his disposal to finally create complex camera moves he’s been working towards his whole career. Think about the trickery on display in Back to the Future, Forrest Gump, and Contact and watch how much bigger, longer, and more complicated the artifice can be in Flight’s wild plane crash or The Walk’s vertigo-inducing skyscraper tightrope. He’s not doing anything so elaborate here, instead concocting with cinematographer Don Burgess’s scrubbed smooth images a sort of vintage throwback spy movie, with patiently filmed polished backlots and wardrobe, perfect and shiny, the better to complement his movie stars. There’s just nothing like putting a real person in an elaborately imagined feat of moviemaking. (Perhaps it’s worth pointing out Zemeckis’s three post-animation films contain nude scenes. I suppose that’s making use of the live in live action?) So when sharply dressed people watch the sun rise over the sand dunes, Nazis get blown apart, or London’s skies light up with enemy fire, there’s a charge to seeing the layers of phony visual interest designed for our amusement.
But for such a good-looking film, it grows tedious the instant it introduces its most gripping complication. Pitt and Cotillard return from Casablanca to England, where they promptly decide to get married. A year passes, during which they have a child, born during an air raid in one of the movie’s best hyperbolic set pieces. Then, one fateful Friday, Pitt is called into a secret meeting where his superiors (Jared Harris and Simon McBurney) tell him his wife is most likely a Nazi spy. They’ll know for sure by Monday morning. He’s to act like nothing’s out of the ordinary, but if she’s found guilty he’ll be the one pulling the trigger. If he doesn’t, he’ll face indictment for conspiracy. This should be gripping material, like Mr. and Mrs. Smith in reverse, dazzling espionage funneled into a comfortable domestic life instead of the other way around. Every minute of this weekend should be loaded with portent. And yet writer Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things) has designed a screenplay that separates the couple for large portions of this second half, sending Pitt on increasingly inane attempts at investigating that are both useless and fruitless. For such a great spy, it takes him a dreadfully long time putting the clues together.
Zemeckis has the right cast and crew to pull off a stylish WWII thriller, but the screenplay tunnel visions into its least interesting aspects. It privileges a limp mystery over a rich vein of emotional marriage metaphor lingering untapped below the surface. In sidelining Cotillard, it shoves the romantic tension and the questions of betrayal far into the background. In isolating Pitt it leaves him adrift in a plot beyond his control despite all attempts to gin up conflict to wander into. (A late breaking jaunt behind enemy lines is especially dunderheaded, adding nothing to the plot while separating him from where the entirety of the film’s dramatic interest sits.) As the movie enters its long, slow, concluding sequences, it finally succeeds in choking off personality and promise while snoozing through dull revelations and last minute attempts at shocking turns of events. After such dazzling artifice and dopey movie pleasure up front, it’s depressing to watch it all fade to nothing by the end. It’s simply a great idea – and some polished, confident filmmaking – going to waste.