From the birth of talking pictures in the late 1920s to the emergence of the European New Wave and rising counter-culture in the ’60s, Hollywood studio movies dominated the American market. We now broadly define these movies as Classic Hollywood, but during their heyday, they were romantic. They were pictures of beautiful people doing beautiful things, wearing beautiful dresses and suits while speaking beautifully composed sentences. They never worried about paying rent or finding a parking space. They woke up with their make-up on and were never behind in a conversation. It was fantasy, and audiences ate it up like manna from the gods.
Since, Hollywood has undergone many transformations inspired by the work of the underground avant-garde movement, Italian neorealism, French New Wave, and British Kitchen sink realism. The New American Cinema of the 1970s let the talent drive the studio system until they ran the gas dry and the corporations took over in the ’80s. What followed was a mixture of franchise blockbusters looking for the highest grosses possible and small auteur-driven passion projects. The mid-level adult dramas of yesteryear were squeezed out, only to reemerge each year with A-list stars and important historical stories in hopes of garnering Oscar attention.
This is the atmosphere in which Robert Zemeckis’ Allied—a World War II glossy spy thriller with an $85 million budget—debuts. Starring Brad Pitt as Canadian spy Max Vatan and Marion Cotillard as French spy Marianne Beauséjour, Allied is a romance picture with very little steam, a war picture with only one impressive set piece, and a spy picture with a double-cross so bland that all the players look and feel like they are going through the motions strictly for a paycheck.
Zemeckis appears to be going for a mash-up of Alfred Hitchcock and Michael Curtiz, drawing out his story as long as possible to keep the audience off their game while focusing on local flair. An over-long sequence about Max—who is undercover as Marianne’s Parisian husband—spending his nights on the roof of their Casablanca apartment so that the neighbors don’t suspect their ruse is odd and drawn out. Ditto for the scenes with Max, a member of the Royal Canadian Air Force, navigating the bureaucracy and hierarchy of the British armed services.
Not that Allied isn’t without any trappings; the locations are picturesque, and the costumes from Joanna Johnston are sumptuous. They give the effect of Classic Hollywood, but the effect isn’t enough. Many modern-day movies try to crib from the romantic Hollywood studio system, from film noir, from the French New Wave, but they are all mirages. Those styles were of a time and a place. That time has passed, and those places no longer exist. They have been complicated and compromised by events that have shaped the world in the past 80 years. Movies should do the same.
Directed by Robert Zemeckis
Written by Steven Knight
Produced by Graham King, Steve Starkey, Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard, Jared Harris, Lizzy Caplan, Simon McBurney, Matthew Goode
Paramount Pictures, Rated R, Running time 124 minutes, Opens November 22, 2016