In some ways, the new World War II drama Allied represents the culmination of director Robert Zemeckis’s career as a technical filmmaker, offering the Hollywood stalwart and Back to the Future veteran another chance to marry classic storytelling with seamless special-effects work (sorry, Brad, no one believes your face is really that smooth). Beyond providing a test run of the latest in digital technology, Allied offers Zemeckis a chance to make an old-fashioned romp through exotic locales, one that deliberately calls to mind some of the great war films of decades past, from its Casablanca opener to the shades of Ingrid Bergman–esque suspicion cast on the notorious Marion Cotillard. With its glamorous movie stars, twisty plot, and confidently glossy design, Allied is the kind of film that people point to as an example of the kind of movies they don’t make like they used to, and its status as a late-period drama from a genial director might make it more endearing to those who have seen Zemeckis through from the ups of films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit to the downs of Beowulf. But for casual audiences, locating a reason for Allied to exist once you venture into the world outside the mind of the man who made it is itself an impossible mission.
Allied is the story of a wartime partnership between a Canadian spy and a French Resistance fighter, whose romance begins when they agree to fake a relationship for the sake of dispatching a German ambassador in North Africa. Though violence is not precluded from this story of wartime deception, Allied is primarily a love story, and the plot eventually pivots from the Resistance to life on the home front, where the intrigue quickly moves from international concerns to the challenges of trusting the motivations of a romantic partner. It could be described as bad luck that a perfectly inoffensive war film like Allied would be released in theaters in the same week that neo-Nazis began to openly salute the newly elected president of the United States, but so far Allied has seemed to operate in its own world, entirely separate from and even irrelevant to today’s news. Can Allied’s arrival be described as bad timing if no one even notices that its subject might have relevance beyond tabloid speculation about its co-stars?
As even mildly antifascist critics are taunted by Twitter trolls who defend Nazism with claims that liberals don’t know their history, it’s hard to enjoy Allied without willfully succumbing to cognitive dissonance around the historical period it depicts. The film bases the twist in its plot on a supposed wartime measure called the “intimate betrayal rule” that obliged any operative who found themselves at the center of a scam to kill their partner ... but beyond the fear of ideological infidelity, there is no explicit sense of what the ideologies at stake in Allied even are. It’s equally possible for us to believe that Cotillard’s Marianne is a Resistance fighter as it is for us to believe she’s a Nazi spy because she has effectively been drained of all political consciousness. Hitler is a distant threat, the Nazis we meet are interchangeable, and without characterization, their political affiliation is immaterial. The bad guys in Allied could just as easily be Germans in World War I or Soviets in the Cold War. Hell, with the way Donald Trump talks about China, in two years maybe this whole story could have been set right now — just make Brad Pitt a Goldman Sachs broker in the Hong Kong financial district. Ultimately, the choice to set the intrigue among Nazis feels predicated more on the style of clothing Zemeckis wanted to display on-screen than it does on any kind of political statement or even understanding of the conflict that actually produced Nazism. To be able to enjoy any of the film’s many polished facades, Allied effectively asks us to treat its World War II setting as another extension of its elaborate special effects — of course you’ll be bothered if you look too closely, but why not just accept the unnatural smoothness and enjoy the simplicity of the ride?
If we can ignore for a moment that Allied tries to make us to believe Brad Pitt is Canadian, the moral relativism of Allied appears far from anomalous, and is in fact entirely representative of the current Hollywood approach to World War II filmmaking. While some of the greatest films in Hollywood history were made by refugees and survivors of World War II — the aforementioned Casablanca being but one — in our current moment, the era has been plundered for its slinkily dressed and inky shadowed aesthetics by just about every modern formalist from Michael Bay to Steven Soderbergh. Where filmmakers from Fritz Lang to John Huston pioneered techniques like noir lighting to express the anxiety of living in a time of vast political and moral uncertainty, in the modern era, those techniques are hollowed out and stripped of context, applied as empty filters to stories that oftentimes work against the very conclusions drawn by America’s original wartime filmmakers to perpetuate our own nationalist myth of Americans as the great uncompromisable heroes of the war. Say what you will about Quentin Tarantino’s more recent forays into the quagmires of Civil War–era racism, but Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds is the most principled American look at World War II in over 20 years, explicitly acknowledging anti-Semitism and heteromasculine nationalism as the roots of German aggression and not settling for the simple good guy versus bad guy structure imposed by many Hollywood takes on the same subject.
The political ambivalence of the modern American war film is rarely discussed in relation to World War II, maybe because for so long Nazism was commonly understood to be an episode in our past that we had sufficiently insulated ourselves from repeating. Maybe if Allied had been an ill-timed decades-in-the-making passion project, its genial neutrality would read as less indifferent — sometimes a movie is in development for so long that its political context changes between the start of shooting and its eventual release in theaters. But Robert Zemeckis began filming in February of this year, as neo-Nazism was beginning its slow creep toward the center of American national politics. Among those neo-Nazi groups, Hollywood is often derided as part of the liberal elite, but ironically, Allied is just one example of how mainstream Hollywood’s supposed liberalism is undermined by its competing lack of moral will. Not every movie set in the past has an obligation to address the ideological forces that produced its images, but when the politics of the past are recurring in the present, the omission of politics from the narrative is itself a political statement.