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The Man Who Would Be Spielberg

A look at the innovative and impersonal films of ‘Allied’ director Robert Zemeckis

(Ringer illustration)
(Ringer illustration)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: World War II, a tough guy meets the love of his life behind enemy lines in North Africa — Casablanca, to be exact. It may or may not be a coincidence that the new romantic thriller Allied is set in 1942, the same year of Casablanca’s release, but the early descriptions of the film have a certain play-it-again-Sam quality. With Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard providing star power, Allied looks like a throwback to an era when spy movies were glamorous, not gritty, which makes it both business as usual and strangely atypical for its director, Robert Zemeckis. This is a filmmaker whose body of work comprises a rich and significant contradiction between old and new. Starting with the modest Beatles pastiche I Wanna Hold Your Hand — a 1978 production that tries to recapture the British Invasion excitement of 1964 — Zemeckis has always seemed most comfortable looking back in time, albeit through increasingly state-of-the-art visual prisms: he is, uniquely, a nostalgist and a technocrat.

When Zemeckis won the Academy Award for Best Director for Forrest Gump in 1995, he was handed his award by Steven Spielberg — a fortuitous bit of Oscar-telecast stage management that suggested the passing of the torch.

In Tom Shone’s terrific 2004 book Blockbuster: How Hollywood Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Summer, Spielberg recalls meeting Zemeckis for the first time when the latter barged into his office on the Universal lot to present his student film. This act of chutzpah paid significant dividends, with the impressed Spielberg — barely a young tyro himself at this point — signing on to produce the interloper’s first two films, in effect becoming Zemeckis’s mentor.

Zemeckis repaid Spielberg by slyly sending up the latter’s career one movie at a time, starting with the pitch-perfect Jaws joke written into his and Bob Gale’s script for Spielberg’s 1941 — in which a surfacing submarine menaces the same blonde skinny dipper previously chomped on by Bruce — and running through Used Cars, which replaced the exhilarating highway chases of The Sugarland Express with the mudslinging of cheapjack automotive salesmen, and Romancing the Stone, a grinning Raiders of the Lost Ark rip-off with Michael Douglas in mock-macho mode as a knockoff Harrison Ford. (It’s also possible to look at his 1997 hit Contact as E.T. in reverse, with scientist Jodie Foster as the earthling who ends up phoning home.)

Among the emergent crop of directors amblin’ their way through the early ’80s — Zemeckis, working directly under Spielberg’s tutelage, seemed to be in the best position to challenge his patron’s position. And the massive box office of Back to the Future and Who Framed Roger Rabbit, meanwhile, implied that he was on his way, reeling off a run of hits culminating in the triumphal success of Forrest Gump — a positively Spielbergian integration of old-fashioned Americana and state-of-the-art special-effects technology.

Forrest Gump was also a sham, of course: that gently spiralling CGI feather — and its symbolic representation of an answer, my friends, that’s blowing in the wind — was a hilariously apt symbol for a movie that crassly advocated passivity as a state of grace. It was a far cry from the sly political jabs of Used Cars, in which Kurt Russell’s unscrupulous lemon-slinger interrupts Jimmy Carter’s State of the Union address about the threat of inflation to air a commercial for his lot, and Back to the Future, where a 1955 movie theater marquee advertising Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana has trickled down to hawking pornography in 1985. Forrest Gump was a mindlessly virtuoso sound-and-fury tour of post-Eisenhower America: at every crucial juncture, Tom Hanks’s down-home savant bears oblivious witness to history, while those who tried to shape it — from Elvis Presley and John F. Kennedy to Martin Luther King Jr. and John Lennon — are tallied up as casualties of a culture war beyond their control.

If there’s a more condescending, paternalistic representation of countercultural values and aspirations in American cinema than Robin Wright’s performance as Jenny — Forrest’s guitar-strumming, war-protesting, drug-taking, and ultimately disease-stricken inamorata — I haven’t encountered it (though we are about to enter into a post-Trump era of conservative filmmaking). Forrest Gump’s placating approach, which boiled down, in the end, to a variation on “I’m With Stupid,” was the antithesis of Zemeckis’s early hell-raising attitude. The only logical explanation for those who remembered the rambunctious comedy of his earlier work was that the whole thing — starting with Hanks’s flawlessly modulated holy-fool acting and extending to that perfectly curated Boomer soundtrack — was meant ironically: in his notes for a recent Museum of Modern Art retrospective on Zemeckis, the great critic Dave Kehr suggests that the film offers “a darkly satirical vision in the guise of folk wisdom.”

Of course, satire is as satire does, and Zemeckis didn’t accept that Oscar from Spielberg ironically. Love it or hate it, Forrest Gump looks in retrospect like the movie that cuts its director’s career in half: not between “good” and “bad,” since he’s made his share of worthy films in the two decades since, but between the initial incarnation of the director as a hard-driving satirist who used his technique to illuminate the gap between fantasy and reality — never more brilliantly than in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, which juxtaposed Looney Tunes with Chinatown — and an ensconced industry power player taking on projects more as exercises than expressions of a personal sensibility.

It’s instructive, for instance, to compare the boisterous, liberated craziness of 1992’s underrated (and commercially underperforming) Death Becomes Her, in which feuding divas Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep lay waste to one another’s cosmetically augmented bodies in a deluxe send-up of horror-movie tropes, with the drab, calculating perfection of What Lies Beneath, which was hailed as Zemeckis’s homage to Alfred Hitchcock.

Where the earlier film’s mix of overt, viciously literalized misogyny — with its leading ladies’ bodies cartoonishly stretched and splayed to the breaking point — created an unsettling dissonance between intention and effect, What Lies Beneath, despite the implications of its title, was all surface. Zemeckis deployed camera moves and music cues connoting an overtly “classical” construction, but the lack of spontaneity and humour was evident, even when, like Death Becomes Her, the film’s suspense plot mutates into a full-on, supernatural affair.

In the winter of 2000, the same year as What Lies Beneath, Zemeckis released Cast Away, another collaboration with Tom Hanks that left us with at least one iconic bit of imagery — America’s leading leading-man emoting forlornly in the general direction of a volleyball — and looks positively prescient in retrospect: as much as the film was reaching back to the mythic scenario of Robin Crusoe, it anticipated the subsequent cycle of harrowing, lone-survivor narratives from 127 Hours and Buried to Life of Pi and The Martian. Tellingly, Cast Away was at its most mesmerizing when outlining the logistical challenges of staying alive on an unsettled island, and at its soppiest when it returned Hanks to civilization.

At its core, Cast Away was a gimmick movie, but the gimmick worked because it was tethered to a warm, humane movie-star performance: when Zemeckis brought Hanks back in 3-D motion-capture form in The Polar Express, it was as if a twinkle-eyed mutant had crawled out of the uncanny valley into the laps of terrified children everywhere. Where Who Framed Roger Rabbit imagined a Utopian space in which 2-D and 3-D characters could interact seamlessly, The Polar Express and its follow-ups Beowulf and A Christmas Carol (all produced under the banner of Zemeckis’s own company, ImageMovers) reconfigured sturdy, enduring myths as digitized fantasias — folding ancient narratives into flashy packaging in ways that felt at once dazzling and impersonal.

There was more humanity onscreen and behind the camera in Flight and The Walk, two consecutive awards-season contenders that showed signs of a return to early form. Certainly, Flight’s bawdy, raucous opening sequences depicting the bad behaviour of Denzel Washington’s boozy airline pilot “Whip” Whitaker had some of Used Cars old spark (although using the Barenaked Ladies’ “Alcohol” to soundtrack a scene featuring bare-naked ladies and alcohol has to be some kind of world record for sound-to-image obviousness). Flight’s story of a flawed ace who succeeds in spite of himself rhymes interestingly with The Walk’s re-creation of Philippe Petit’s man-on-wire-high-jinks at the World Trade Center: both films are profiles of seasoned pros whose actions transform them into hugely scrutinized media darlings. They’re also both beautifully made, with Flight’s near-crash sequence rivalling Cast Away’s nose-dive set-piece for stomach-churning verisimilitude. And yet despite the possible reading of self-portraiture into their narratives, they seem less a matter of (as Kehr puts it) “combin[ing] popular appeal and individual expression” as technical challenges (especially in the case of The Walk’s eye-popping IMAX presentation) to be met and mastered.

This is not to dismiss Zemeckis as a mere technocrat, or to suggest that Allied won’t improve upon its immediate predecessors: a screenplay credit for the British writer Steven Knight, whose scripts for thrillers like Eastern Promises and Locke were filled with rich, humane details, could be the perfect complement to the director’s relentless perfectionism and occasional smart-aleck coolness. At their best, Pitt and Cotillard are both compelling, honest-to-goodness movie stars, and as Zemeckis hasn’t really had any sexual heat in any of his movies since Jessica Rabbit made eyes at Bob Hoskins, the possibility of a film with more romance than FX spectacle is encouraging. Writing and acting, glamour and intrigue — in movies as in life, the fundamental things still apply.