Allied is a very different film for post-2000 Robert Zemeckis. While technology has consistently played an important role in the director's career from the start, it's arguably been brought more to the forefront in the last 15 years, and has been incredibly influential in every movie he's made since Castaway: from his motion capture trilogy, to the plane-flipping drama of Flight, to the vertigo-inducing 3D of The Walk. For his latest, however, the great filmmaker has decreased the importance of the tech department, spinning a story of espionage in World War II. Allied proves that Zemeckis can still tell great, small-scaled stories, crafting a tight, compelling period drama driven by a pair of fantastic lead performances.
Opening in Casablanca, Morocco (a not-too-subtle nod to a film that clearly helped inspire it), Allied begins as Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) rendezvous with Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), a member of the French Resistance who has signed on to be part of an assassination of a Nazi official. They start by posing as a couple, a ruse to catch certain eyes and get invitations necessary for the mission, but before long, their fake relationship turns into a real one, as they fall deeply in love.
When the story picks up years later, Max and Marianne are still blissful -- married in England and raising a child -- but that all changes following a disturbing accusation. Brought in by his superiors, Max is shocked to learn that his beloved wife may not actually be Marianne Beauséjour, but instead may actually be a German spy. Max is given the simple task of giving her access to misinformation and told not to investigate the matter... but this is a directive that he completely ignores, as he becomes obsessed with personally uncovering the potential truth about his beloved wife.
Based on an original screenplay by Steven Knight, there is a certain clearness to the structure in Allied, as the three acts play with a different kind of tension and relationship between Max and Marianne, but the engagingness of the twisty narrative gets the movie past those pacing speed bumps. The film starts with a bang, entwining us with the two leads as they play out their spy games in Morocco, and more important than being thrilling and clever, it forges the vital chemistry between the future lovers. It's watching them passionately come together that inspires engagement as the story continues, and you begin to question if everything that was established was anything more than spurious. And while there is a bit of a drag in the middle, as Max carries out his personal investigation, it hits high gear in the third act and is both unexpected and emotional in its conclusion.
As noted, Allied is a smaller-scaled film for Robert Zemeckis, and most of its drama is driven by shadowy sequences of dialogue. But the director also punctuates the movie with a number of impressive and explosive action sequences afforded by the period setting. In this specific capacity, it's the execution of the plan in Casablanca that comes together as one of the best sequences in the film (with more than just Brad Pitt's presence conjuring comparisons to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds), but Zemeckis keeps the action and tension high as he can throughout the tight narrative -- from Max and Marianne's baby being born during the Blitz, to a terrifying plane crash during a house party. Shot with beautiful style by longtime Zemeckis collaborator Don Burgess, they each add a great zip whenever things seem to start getting a little too settled.
Of course, as strong as the relationship between Max and Marianne is on paper, it doesn't come across without equally strong performances -- so it's a pretty damn important thing that Zemeckis enlisted Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard as his leads. Neither of them a stranger to the World War II period, the two actors are given wonderfully emotionally complex roles to play within the story, and spark both individually and together. Pitt is given what can be called the meatier part, as Max's raw nerves are fully exposed throughout the film as he tries to learn the truth about his wife -- but Cotillard's part is the more subtle and challenging, perfectly engulfing Marianne with an enigmatic air that perpetually keeps the audience guessing. They're heavy turns, but Pitt and Cotillard prove again why they're two of the best in the business.
Robert Zemeckis' career has partially been defined by the electiveness in his filmography -- regularly experimenting in new and different genres and styles -- and his first venture into the World War II era is a success. While there's surely still plenty of invisible digital wizardry in play, Allied feels like classic meat and potatoes filmmaking, with a great director paired with a thrilling script and two brilliant stars, and minus a few hiccups and minor issues, it comes together as you would hope.