ALLIED (2016, Robert Zemeckis)
Not exactly sure why this is one of the biggest surprises of the year, explained only I suppose by a muted response from audiences and critics in the month it’s been out. But you’d think that with two of the biggest movie stars on earth doing a throwback WWII spy-thriller-romance for the guy behind ROMANCING THE STONE, CAST AWAY, and BACK TO THE FUTURE, I might have expected something that sings this magnificently. I didn’t.
On a formal note, this is some of the most assured and impressive work Zemeckis has ever done; certainly his best in over 15 years. Scene and shot construction like this sometimes feels like a lost art, but the way he economizes establishing shots, edits his dialogue scenes with the perfect timing and focus, and directs your gaze through mise-en-scene — it’s all classical and flawless. I’m sick of the cliché “a master class in directing,” but I wouldn’t blame anyone using it here: all the best things people say about Spielberg, Ford, and Hawks can apply to Zemeckis at his best, too, and I think the reason he’s left out is that his subject matter can let him down at times (like the reactionary corn of FORREST GUMP or the sappy AA commercial that FLIGHT becomes).
Thanks to Steven Knight’s superb original screenplay, Zemeckis has a lot to work with from a content standpoint: this is a story about trust and artifice, perfect for a filmmaker who likes to use sets and effects that revel in artifice, trusting the audience to go along with it. The costumes and production design, especially in the luxurious first act set in 1942 Casablanca (a nod to Michael Curtiz’s film from that year which this movie blows away, in the opinion of this humble reviewer), are fit for movie stars like this playing spies playing actors.
Cotillard is brilliant as usual — a chameleon who can take on any role (it’s hard to believe 2 DAYS 1 NIGHT, THE DARK KNIGHT RISES, and this are all the same actress), and she infuses Marianne with the kind of sly confidence, oozing sexuality, and trigger-happy emotion the character calls for, and what makes Max so head over heels. She even gets her voice right: when Marianne speaks English in Morocco, her accent mirrors Pitt’s Canadian one; when she’s in London, she affects a British accent for her English dialogue. And Pitt, who can be absolutely dire in dramas, comes up aces here — he’s the right kind of square-jaw: more charming than Bogey, as innocent as Jimmy Stewart, and a believable action hero when the bullets fly.
Knight’s script keeps you guessing, and Zemeckis’s storytelling is so gracious that you don’t get distracted by anything arrogant about the filmmaking; it’s all in the purpose of a story to sweep you up, just what old Hollywood used to do so well. I didn’t realize how badly I wanted to see an immersive piece of studio filmmaking that simply crackles. Zemeckis, you glorious bastard!