When looking at movies that are rightly considered modern classics, it's easy to forget how some of them flopped commercially and critically when they were first released. Films like "Blade Runner," "Brazil," "Shawshank Redemption," "Citizen Kane," "Fight Club" and even "It's a Wonderful Life" were met with audience disinterest and critical shrugs.
A big reason for a great film flopping is timing. "Blade Runner" opened two weeks after "E.T." and the cerebral nature of the film isn't what people were expecting. Also, sometimes a film is so far ahead of its time (like "Citizen Kane" and "Brazil") that the cultural zeitgeist wasn't prepared for it.
That's not to say "Allied" is remotely as classic as any of those movies, but it's definitely going to play much better in 20 years than it will today. There's a timelessness to the direction, story and performances that feels like a throwback to a bygone era in filmmaking. Still, with Robert Zemeckis in the director's chair, his adoration of modern special effects technology means the film feels beholden to two time periods of filmmaking.
Quite a few films of the 1940s and 50s were about putting fairly blank characters into difficult situations and then seeing what choices they made. "Allied" feels like a part of that tradition with two characters (who both play as fairly enigmatic) that are given a series of impossible choices to navigate themselves through.
It's 1942 and Brad Pitt is Max Vatan, a Canadian officer with British Intelligence who parachutes into Casablanca to assassinate a Nazi ambassador. His contact is the French Resistance fighter Marianne Beausejour (played by Marion Cotillard), who is already stationed in Casablanca playing Vatan's loving wife. The first section of the film is their mission in Africa, which chronicles them killing Nazis and falling in love for realsies.
Once the mission is over, Vatan asks Beausejour to come with him to London to be his bride. We jump forward a year and see they now have an infant daughter and a happy marriage. That is destroyed when Vatan's bosses tell him there is a possibility that his wife is actually a Nazi spy. High-tension spying and uncomfortable silences ensue.
Pitt does something weird here. He tamps all of his charisma down in order to play a stiff and chilly Canadian. This feels like an old school movie star performance, like something Gregory Peck or Sterling Hayden would have pulled off in some forgotten war film of the 1950s. Cotillard is so warm and lovely that it's easy to think that Pitt is just flat in the film, but it's actually a performance built mostly in his eyes and his silences. This is the most restrained he has ever been on film.
"Allied" is beautiful to look at, with some of the finest cinematography of the year by Don Burgess—really on a roll this year after his sumptuous work on "The Conjuring 2." Zemeckis is a master, so the film is always fascinating to look at even in the flabby middle section.
If the script for "Allied" had spent more time getting us into the heads of the characters, then the film would have been a heartbreaking look at marriage, identity and compartmentalization, but because we never care about them as much as we should, the film is really just a well made diversion. Although, maybe it's better than I think it is. Check back with me in 20 years.
Dir. Robert Zemeckis
Now playing at Old Mill Stadium 16 & IMAX and Sisters Movie House