When I criticize a movie for its poorly fleshed-out characters, I sometimes get the response, "They don't need depth. They're iconic." Fair enough. But a movie needs to earn "iconic" characters by being memorable in other ways — visually stunning, thematically resonant, devilishly twisty, something. Paying homage to movies that are iconic doesn't wash as an excuse for trafficking in clichés.
Director Robert Zemeckis wants us to buy Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan (Brad Pitt), the protagonist of Allied, as an iconic figure. That's clear from the very first scene, in which Vatan parachutes into the Moroccan desert and the camera slowly, slowly pivots around him. It's even clearer in the scene in which Vatan and his fellow spy, Marianne Beauséjour (Marion Cotillard), consummate their passion in the middle of a sandstorm. But, for all its echoes of Casablanca and The English Patient, this World War II drama doesn't earn the "iconic" label. At most, it's a middling diversion with a void at the center.
That void is Max Vatan, who never develops a personality beyond generic heroism and a desire to retire to Medicine Hat once the war is over. During the film's first third, in which Max and Marianne impersonate a married couple and spearhead a daring plot to kill a Nazi ambassador, Cotillard frantically overworks her flirtatious wiles to make their every interaction into a double entendre. Pitt, meanwhile, just looks bored.
But apparently Max is charmed by their one-sided banter, because soon he's asking the sultry French Resistance worker to marry him for real. The two settle down in London, where their Hampstead cottage is a refuge from the horrors of the Blitz — until Vatan's superiors inform him that Marianne is a suspected double agent. If she's found guilty, her husband will have to execute her himself.
Zemeckis works up several visually striking, moderately thrilling set pieces, including a baby's birth during an air raid and the interruption of a boozy party by a careening Nazi plane. The film's second half, set over a weekend as Max races to gather evidence of Marianne's innocence, gains a degree of suspense and momentum from that "ticking clock" structure. Recurring shots of Max watching Marianne in mirrors evoke the confusion of appearance and reality inherent in the couple's profession.
Yet Steven Knight's screenplay simply doesn't provide enough depth or enough twists to place Allied among the ranks of memorable espionage films. The supporting characters, often MVPs of this genre, are barely developed here, despite the casting of accomplished actors such as August Diehl, Jared Harris and Lizzy Caplan. The film's main focus is not on the double-crossing and mind games but on the romance, and that's a problem.
While Max and Marianne get steamier sex scenes than Rick and Ilsa ever could have, their cinematic coupling isn't one for the ages. We don't feel the smoldering chemistry early on or the mature affection later; while her character is teasingly mysterious, his remains flat. And that flatness — of both writing and performance — becomes a serious deficiency in the last section, when the whole film revolves around Max's conflict between love and duty. Pitt still looks like the iconic wartime hero, but he doesn't sell the anguish that would make us care.
If there's anything genuinely iconic about Allied, it's the succession of silky and slinky dresses, robes and nightgowns that Cotillard wears. Costume designer Joanna Johnston deserves ample recognition at Oscar time, as does the production team that re-created the era in sumptuous detail. The movie looks like an epic, all right, but it plays like a Greatest Generation soap opera.