1942.  A Canadian spy, Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) parachutes into the Moroccan desert, catches a ride at the appointed rendez-vous, and meets up with his fellow collaborator, Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard), a French Resistance fighter.  They're in Casablanca to take out the German ambassador, but first they must secure an invitation to the ball being thrown in his honor, which requires personal approval of the Commandant.  And that requires enough socializing to test their mettle as undercover operatives.

            Marianne tells Max that his French is pretty good, but his accent is bad.  He sounds like he's from Quebec (actually, Max is Canadian, but also a wing commander in the Royal Air Force).  She also tells him that it's important to keep up appearances of not only being husband and wife, but also not having seen each other for a while.  She's been telling her friends there that her husband has been away in Paris, which is a logcial scenario, except somebody who's really from Paris would be able to tell that the French accent is not authentic.  So Max doesn't say much in their social circles, which is OK, because Marianne is the whirlwind socialite, constant repartee and apparently loyal to the Vichy, and, by implication, to the occupying Germans.

            It's a dangerous situation, and they both know it.  When Max offers to sleep on the couch, Marianne informs him that in Casablanca, the husbands sleep on the roof, after visiting his wife in the boudoir.  She then visits him a couple of times on the roof, just to chat and smoke, inferrring the post-coital languishing, for the sake of appearances, you know, because neighbors are peeking out of their own windows.  And kiss me like you mean it.

            It's not hard to figure where this is headed.  The day before their clandestine operation, they're in the car near the desert, and when he turns the ignition, she puts his hand on his and says, “Tomorrow we could both be dead.”  He turns off the ignition.  And they make love right there in the car, with the wind blowing the sand outside, and now it's a different operation, because they're emotionally involved with each other.

            Thankfully for them, the operation succeeds, but now comes the tricky part:  extraction.  He manages to exit immediately, but she stays behind while he attempts to get her back to England.  Not so they can plan their next operation, but so they can marry.  Yes, he's smitten.  And so is she.  And she has their baby in the middle of an air raid as they're moving her gurney through a courtyard to try to get her to safety.  But now they get to settle in a quiet suburb for a quite peaceful year, until the British authorities haul him in for questioning because they suspect that his wife is a German spy.

            They tell him they're doing the “blue dye” procedure:  they're going to entrust him with an encrypted message with false information, and they're going to see if it gets passed on to the Germans. (We already know that the German communications have been hacked.)   Now Max's cool is severly tested.  And the tensions mount even as their friends party like there's no tomorrow (because for some of them, there won't be).

            This is the kind of espionage/thriller film that plays well on the big screen, and the two principals both project a commanding presence.  Their chemistry together seems quite natural.  This particular story may be fiction, but it was probably close to the truth of many other clandestine operations during World War II, and so it has the feel of authenticity, as well.  Just know that in the world of spies and counter-spies, nothing is as it appears.  And you trust others at your own peril.


Questions for Discussion:

1)                  How many spies do you think were operative in World War II, on both sides?

2)                  Do you think spies are still operative today, and if so, where and how many?

3)                  Should the United States be in surveillance of allies as well as adversaries?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association