Opening your World War II movie in Casablanca is like opening your horror movie with the exorcism of a vulgar little youngling—you better be bringing something new to this situation or be certain you’re executing at a level that can hang with your esteemed predecessors. Allied, Robert Zemeckis’s retro wartime mystery, does both: Spycraft, organized around an opening mission for Canadian spy Max (Brad Pitt) and displaced French Resistance fighter Marianne (Marion Cotillard) to knock off the German ambassador at a party, allows romance to bleed into the events with an elegance even James Bond films could never dream of attaining. Max and Marianne pose as husband and wife, playing Casablancan society as well as the local Nazi regime while perfecting their plot.
The movie juggles their burgeoning relationship and their professional duties nimbly, building both to a head (including a spectacularly set sex scene, which you’re definitely not getting in Casablanca) the day of the assassination. While most modern World War II movies traffic in the brutal horrors of war, Allied focuses on an intelligence officer’s regret and betrayal without pulling any emotional punches: The look in a Casablancan friend’s eyes is just as memorable as the bloodshed in Saving Private Ryan. Inevitably, the spies deliver on their planned execution, shatter a roomful of lives and begin to build their own together.
As the wedded pair raise a child in London, accusations come from the bowels of the British intelligence community (the more subterranean your office, the higher your pay grade, according to the cinematic language of spy films) that the real Marianne was killed long before the Casablanca mission, back in France with the rest of her Resistance unit, and Max has been living with an impostor who also happens to be a German spy. In turn, Max must leave a piece of juicy (fake) information from HQ around the house—setting a trap for his wife—to see if it turns up on German communication channels after the weekend. If it does, suspicions are confirmed, and Max will be obliged to kill his wife with his own hands to prove his loyalty to the Allies.
Back in Casablanca, Max was astonished by how quickly and loyally Marianne attracted Nazi friendships. She explained then, “I keep the emotions real, that’s why it works.” As such, Zemeckis establishes the idea of betrayal from the film’s opening, and the growth of that sensation over the course of the film is suffocating. The doubt and misdirection that the other spycraft-as-Pitt-marriage-allegory, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, played for sexy laughs clog the air in Allied—we’re tense as the marriage brawls in the mind rather than in a domestic gunfight. We don’t question their sex lives; Zemeckis instead has us question our own relationships, filled with their particular minor lies and petty subterfuges.
Pitt, wonderful here, thrives in films that don’t ask for a mugging, simple punchline. As he grows older, he fits more perfectly into the guileless farmboy patsy he’s been pegged as since the beginning of his career. He’s rugged enough to be competent, but pretty enough that we believe his trusting nature. Meanwhile, Cotillard dominates the film as both subject and object. Is she a spy? Possibly, but we mull over her character in much more complex terms, thanks to the nuanced character work of the film’s brisk first act. Cotillard leans hard into her innate abilities to be inherently untrustworthy—her devious accent, deep-set eyes and mischievous smile subtly dredge up questionable motives.
These motives, always a point of palpable tension, are implied more than demonstrated, primarily through masterful visual construction. Meaningful framing (plot devices loom in the foreground as we watch the actions of our characters—what will they do? Will they take the bait?) is ever-present, seldom feeling obvious. We’re not told what to think, nor left aimlessly drifting (as in more austere or Bourne-esque spy thrillers). Rather, our suspicions are directed as Steven Knight’s script anticipates the nitpickers among us. Spycraft is about the little things, the details, and Allied doesn’t skimp. Zemeckis practically demands a closer look, for viewers to scrutinize the edges of the frame for clues, to inspect for loopholes and contradictions.
Where Allied does feel heavy is in its style, which—while much appreciated compared to a surfeit of boring, static two-shots—loses its even-handedness when every scene seems to come zooming through a window, from a mirror, or split with a windshield. The aforementioned love scene, already set in an unbelievable sandstorm, spins the camera around and around the couple with no fewer than seven cuts. Building the foundation of their love with this spectacle, as well as binding them together through a baby (literally) born under fire as a hospital crumbles in an air raid, is undeniably over-the-top in an otherwise refreshingly brainy film. Everything comes together so perfectly, however, that it’s hard to fault the filmmakers for wanting to showboat a little.
Director: Robert Zemeckis
Writer: Steven Knight
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Lizzy Caplan, Jared Harris, Simon McBurney
Release Date: November 23, 2016
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, RogerEbert.com, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter.