There’s a scene early in your new spy thriller Allied that is representative of everything I love about the kind of big-budget studio filmmaking that you’ve practiced for the last three decades. It’s a simple moment: Brad Pitt, as a stoic Canadian spy hiding in plain sight behind enemy lines, pulls up to a curb outside a nightclub in Nazi-occupied Morocco, parks his car, puts a suitcase in the trunk, and strolls inside.
There’s something magical about the composition of this sequence; the way the camera moves, the way the extras pass through the foreground and background, the sets, the costumes, the impossibly perfect arrangement of bodies and objects within the frame, the impossibly perfect way those bodies and objects are lit—it’s all terribly contrived, and patently unreal, yet somehow transporting and beautiful and utterly believable. It’s the sort of heightened reality that big-screen cinema does better than any other form of media. It’s better than real.
But let’s compare that relatively brief (and narratively innocuous) scene with the opening shot of the film:
A desert landscape lit in pinks and oranges. One of those big, panoramic establishing shots that inevitably conjures thoughts of David Lean. But you let it linger for only a moment. The vista is suddenly obscured by a pair of boots as Brad Pitt descends into frame, strapped into a parachute. The camera follows him as he drifts down towards the sandy dunes, lands, rolls, stands up, and scuffles off on his secret mission.
There is a different kind of contrivance in this moment. And it’s one that has plagued you throughout your career, from way back in the Death Becomes Her days, through to your recent infatuation with motion-capture animation. It’s hard to articulate, but is perhaps best explained as an issue of prioritization: it seems that your technical expression of the story is more important than the story itself. Special effects take precedence over character. Self-conscious camera maneuvers take precedence over narrative clarity.
This is a complaint often leveled at stylists, and it’s not without merit. Brian DePalma is often accused of favoring the mechanics of scene-construction over moral clarity, and Nicolas Winding Refn is often described as an auteur of mood in search of a plot (I happen to disagree on both counts). Ironically, though, you’re not a stylist; certainly not in the same vein as your contemporaries in the 80s Blockbuster Brat-Pack (eg. Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton—two fellas who also struggle, in very different ways, with the infinite potential of modern special effects).
You’re a technologist. The method of storytelling fascinates you. In your best films – the first Back To The Future and Cast Away – this bit of authorial distance works. There’s a naturalism (yes, even in BTTF) that is never quite swallowed by your perpetual desire to show off what special effects make possible. But just because anything is possible doesn’t mean that anything goes.
The fakery, in Allied, is disarming.
And I’m not even talking about the part where a woman gives birth in the streets of London during a Nazi air raid (that’s as noisy and cluttered with action as the climax of a Transformer movie). When the baby is finally born, the soundtrack goes magically silent, the bombs stop dropping, the guns stop blazing, which I totally accept, because such elegant hypocrisies are what make The Movies special.
No, I’m talking scenes like the one that takes place in a parked car in the middle of a desert sandstorm—you know, the sex scene you cribbed from The English Patient. As Pitt and co-star Marion Cotillard get hot and heavy, the camera spins around them, and even though we know cognitively that no camera could really fit inside that car, our disbelief is suspended because the sound design is terrific, and there’s something interesting about the way the scene is edited, a cut after each rotation to a shot on the opposite axis. It sounds complex, showy, but somehow feels in service to the story, a representation of the furious, cyclonic passion in which our two protagonists find themselves caught.
But then the camera (can we even call it a “camera” anymore, the way the frame moves self-consciously through space like some weightless/purposeless/brainless entity) stops, pulls backwards, exits the car through the rear window, and drifts off into the CGI sandstorm, ostensibly to offer the lovers a bit of privacy, but, really, to show off what it can do.
These boasts and brags quickly become tiresome.
Beneath the veneer of epic wartime romance, Allied is really a film about marriage, and how, over time, and despite the best intentions of those involved, the terms of a marriage contract can dramatically change. Which is something, I think, that anyone who is (or has been) married can identify with. I should have been thinking deeply about these ideas when I left the theatre. I should have felt a little bit betrayed, too, by the final ten minutes of the film. So much suspense is generated by the meticulous yielding of information about the film’s central mystery, but is played out in such a conventional manner. Many scenes and lines of dialogue hint at an underlying complexity, which, in an instant of confession are rendered utterly meaningless.
And it’s a shame, because I could have liked this movie. There’s a certain confidence with which a veteran director like you can stage a scene. And there is much in Allied that proves your confidence is earned—I’m sick, quite frankly, of all this Jason Bourne-verité. I yearn for the return of a sort of grown-up Hollywood spectacle that isn’t measured in the number of cities that get blown up, or the number superheroes you can cram into the frame, or how cleverly you can knit together a bunch of Steadicam shots to make a whole film seem continuous.
But you squandered my goodwill with your poor sleight-of-hand. In a film like this, the special effects should be invisible, but instead you’ve given them top billing above the stars, the script, and everything else.