There’s an ongoing sentiment in pop culture that “they just don’t make movies like they used to.” That today’s world of stale sequels and recycled franchises pale in comparison to yesteryear when classics like Citizen Kane (1941) and Casablanca (1942) struck the perfect blend of entertainment and artistic merit. Stars were more glamorous, and less prone to controversy with the tabloids. Risqué content like sex and violence were hinted at, but never shown. The films themselves were uniformly polished, assembled by studios that knew how to appeal to a mass audience. We all fall victim to this nostalgic sentiment — it’s in our nature to be dissatisfied with the here and now.
The flaw in nostalgia, however, is in the severity of too much of it, of wallowing in the past to the exclusion of the pleasures in the present. For every triumph that channels the allure of the past (The Artist 2011, La La Land 2016), there are a dozen weak attempts that only support the “don’t make them like they used to” thesis. These films fail to understand the appeal of something like La La Land, which melds Hollywood nostalgia with modern sensibility, and instead try to imitate the past outright. It’s a misstep that’s been made in a great many films, from Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German (2006) and Brian De Palma’s The Black Dahlia (2006) to Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar (2011).
Unfortunately, Allied (2016), the latest release from director Robert Zemeckis, is yet another example of nostalgia gone wrong. This wartime thriller, set in 1943, has all the requisite trappings of classic Hollywood: Nazis, romance, foreign intrigue, and utterly attractive stars.
Brad Pitt plays Max Vatan, a Canadian intelligence officer on a mission in Morocco. Marion Cotillard plays Marianne Beauséjour, a French resistance fighter who poses as Vatan’s husband for an assassination mission. They bicker, they flirt, and they quickly fall in love. The reformed assassins then relocate to England, where they marry and have a daughter. For those who feel these story elements are being listed off with haste, this is precisely how the information is doled out on film. It isn’t until Vatan is told that his wife might not be who he thinks she is that this rampant bliss comes to a halt, and the core premise begins to pick up steam.
The film’s hook is undeniably promising: Vatan is forced to spend a long weekend with the knowledge that his wife might be a German spy. He’s told that if she is indeed an informant, he will be forced to kill her to prove his innocence. It’s the type of tense, psychosexual journey Alfred Hitchcock might have taken on had the film been pitched during its set period. But Zemeckis, barring a few inspired moments, nullifies the story with a singular pace during its 124 minutes runtime.
One feels the same inkling of suspense when Vatan is talking to friends as when he’s interrogating a war criminal or attempting to catch his wife in a lie. This tension should be reserved for key sequences, but its presence in lesser moments flatlines the entire story. Every effective thriller strikes a balance between tension and moments of release, and Zemeckis — who has made a few sold thrillers over the years — opts to ignore this formula for reasons that remain unknown.
At his best, Zemeckis is a filmmaker who takes classic source material and revises it for contemporary audiences. Romancing the Stone (1984) revamped adventure serials by poking fun at its own clichéd origins. Who Framed Roger Rabbit? (1988) turned bleak film noir into an elastic whodunnit for the entire family. Cast Away (2000) melded the Robinson Crusoe myth with the pain of what such an ordeal would do to a regular man. Raised during the fall of the studio system in the ’60s, Zemeckis understood that to preserve the magic of old stories, one must evolve or revise them to appeal to modern tastes. With Allied, this talent is also lacking, as if he sought to emulate directors like Michael Curtiz or Hitchcock without offering his unique spin.
This stagnancy spills over to the film’s cast, who uniformly come up short. Pitt is picturesque in the lead role, his coiffed hair and calm demeanor calling to mind the common decency of a Gary Cooper. His character is given a difficult job, in that he is both the eyes and ears of the audience and the instigator behind most of the film’s actions. But there’s a resigned flaw in Pitt’s performance (both on the screen and the page), so driven from within that almost none of it surfaces externally. One is forced to infer the turmoil Vatan endures, while Pitt plays it with a stoicism that borders on the sleepy.
It doesn’t help that his chemistry with Cotillard leaves much to be desired, as the most sparks these two elicit is when they’re firing machine guns into Nazis. Despite (unfounded) rumors of their offscreen passion, the two feel mismatched and wholly unconvincing in each other’s arms. The obvious comparisons to classical fare like Casablanca and Notorious (1946) doesn’t do them any favors, either. Cotillard fares slightly better than her stiff co-star, radiant in period costume and channeling the enigmatic quality of a young Ingrid Bergman. An early scene in the film — set in Casablanca, of all places — has Cotillard sporting a hat that makes her a dead ringer for Bergman’s Ilsa Lund. It almost makes up for the restrictions that limited screen time and chemistry put upon her character. Almost.
These heavy-handed homages go on to epitomize the film’s biggest flaw. Zemeckis isn’t shy in his aping of Casablanca, from the scenic locales and forbidden love to the scene where Vatan steals a line from Victor Laszlo and demands Beausejour play “La Marseillaise” on the piano. If it’s meant to be endearing, it’s unsuccessful, and serves only to further the feeling that you should be watching Casablanca, instead. “Zemeckis and screenwriter Steven Knight don’t invest enough time into their characters’ development for any of it to matter — their sole purpose is to be heroic and to evoke a simpler, more romantic time. In that, the film forgets what made its predecessors so impactful in the first place: human interaction. In that, this throwback forgets what made Casablanca so impactful in the first place: human interaction.
Amidst the period staples of fedoras, swing music, and handsome actors, Allied is nothing more than a hollow exercise in style — rich in aesthetic and barren in story. Maybe that’s why “they don’t make them like they used to”; they’ve forgotten how.
The Blu-ray release of the film captures all of the rich imagery that Zemeckis and cinematographer Don Burgess create while stockpiling the special features section with numerous featurettes. In “Through The Lens”, Zemeckis speaks on his directorial style and what initially drew him to the project. “A Stitch In Time” delves into the costumes of Allied with equal zeal, while “That Swingin’ Sound” details the process of selecting music from the time period. In what amounts to a cruel irony, the special features provided here are more engaging than the film itself.