- Reviewed by: Friday and Saturday Night Critic
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Current Rating 5.6/10 | 146 Votes
If loving Oliver Stone is
wrong, I don’t want to be right. Yes, there’s a lot about his new film
Alexander that doesn’t work. But there is so much right
about it, and if it is a failure, it is at least a brave, daring, ambitious, and
spectacular failure. At a time when big budgets often mean small ideas,
Stone has thrown his heart and his brain, and not just money and silicon, at
this project. To call Alexander the worst movie of the
year is to reward cowardice. Stone’s film features stunning images and
symbols, two superb and exhausting battle sequences, and the year’s best
camerawork. It is beautiful to look at. As befits its title
character, a man who had almost everything but kept losing it by a few feet,
it’s worth watching Alexander falter and even crash just to
share in those moments of impossible soaring. Both Alexander and Oliver
have shaken their fists at heaven and the gods have laid them low. But
these are the defeats that a man can be proud of.
First of all, what Alexander does so very, very right: the battles, one between the Macedonians and the Persians, the other between Alexander’s mixed army and the Indians. Both sequences achieve the highest, dizziest glory of movie violence: through a mixture of awe and disgust, we are challenged to look into the dankest pit of the human soul. As I witnessed thousands and thousands of men hacking each other to pieces—swords, spears, knives, chariot wheels, even a severed head being used at one point as a weapon—and the sand turned to blood, my eyes got wet and I thought man truly is the vilest, most repulsive creature to ever walk the earth. Soldiers end the conflicts drenched in blood, from head to toe, and we follow the young conqueror into the vast fields of the wounded. Yet, even amidst such ghastliness, I found myself admiring the mechanical genius that made the weapons, the athletic prowess that decides the victor, and the creativity and intuition that summons the tactics. Such is the ambivalence at the core of our being, and the bloodshed in Alexander — like the helicopter battle in Apocalypse Now — illustrates that.
The first battle is a stunning mixture of cinematography, effects, camerawork, and vast numbers of trained soldiers. Director of photography Rodrigo Prieto turns the bloodshed into an enormous canvas of dustclouds pierced by blinding blades of sunlight. We fly alongside Alexander’s pounding steed, then move in front of him within the same shot; we coast from one army to another on the wings of an eagle; we follow cavalry until we are enveloped by clouds of sand kicked up by the horses. Conceptually stunning is that Stone doesn’t just ram us into a hacking, sword-swinging melee but actually gives us a sense of the tactics involved. Titles such as “Macedonian Left” and “Macedonian Center” are helpful, and the sequence in which Alexander’s cavalry outruns the Persian cavalry, leads its horsemen astray, then encircles them beneath a cloud of dust is masterful. The battle between the conqueror and the Indians employs a photographic technique that would seem absurd if I revealed it now, but fits perfectly within the course of the movie. The result is that Alexander and his men seem to be slicing and dismembering Indians in the very lowest pit of hell itself…and that’s when the elephants come out of the trees.
Thematically, Stone plays Alexander like a sword-and-sandal Citizen Kane both Charlie Kane and Alexander the Great see the conquest and the control of others as the only way to feel love and bring happiness to the world. Both hide their desire for control under well-meaning patriarchy: Kane hopes to “give” the underdog a fair shake against industrial tyrants, while A-the-G hopes to bring Greek and Macedonian liberties to the serfs of the East. There is perhaps no illusion more alluring than becoming the pure-hearted and just tyrant. Unlike every conqueror in his wake, Alexander does not wish to wipe out all “inferior” cultures and replace them with his own; he longs to join all the cultures together, intermingled and intermarried, to wipe out all differences and all the crap that goes with them. To this end, he and his army of skirt-wearing badasses set out to conquer Persia and pretty much everything that pops up after it.
By the time of his death, under a Persian flag, he is no longer a Macedonian, but a citizen of the world, or at least his vision of it. Imagine if Great Britain, instead of making India a colony, had introduced India and the Indians into the United Kingdom as equal partners with England, Wales, and Scotland, and you’ll get an idea of Alexander’s vision. His subordinates do not share his ambition, partly because of bigotry, tribalism, and greed, but partly because they see through the illusion of the just and kindly dictator. We are, of course, living with the fruits of this man’s labors to this day, and Stone’s goal is to dissect these 2,300-year-old seeds.
Alexander is partly undone by its uncertainty of how to treat the great man. It succeeds when it takes the approach of Lawrence of Arabia and Citizen Kane, in which the man at the center of the storm is a question mark. Stone makes it clear that we are not seeing Mr. The Great (Irish actor Colin Farrell) himself, but a version of him as remembered by one of his successors, now an old man and ruler of Egypt (Welshman Sir Anthony Hopkins). The old man admits again and again, “I did not know him, I knew only what I imagined and what I wanted to know about him.” Many of the movie’s best images, involving eagles, horses, and sepulchral cave paintings, come from Alexander confronting the discrepancies between men and the myths about them at various stages in his life.
Stone should have been
content to leave Alexander as a Lawrence-style mirage. The film stumbles
when it tries to be more like Stone’s own Nixon, which painted a complete picture of a man. We
linger when we should have cut, transforming things which would have been
wondrously vague and mysterious into murk. Things are further complicated
by too much talking. To wit, there’s a great shot of the Persian king in
the first battle. He watches the slaughter, turns towards his ocean of
troops, makes a handsign, then goes back to watching the battle. It’s a
perfect shot that show everything but explains nothing.
Alexander could probably have achieved greatness if it had been
more impressionistic or nearly silent. Instead, conversations go longer
than they ought, and Hopkins’s narration—while providing much-needed historical
context—includes what sounds like a movie review inside the movie, explaining
and contextualizing and reading what we’ve seen for us.
As for Colin Farrell, I can’t decide if he’s great or merely adequate. Does he deliver the speeches badly or do they just last too long? Morons will complain about the Irish accents he and the other Macedonians use. It’s a clever play on our expectations that everybody in the “ancient” world spoke with an English accent. The Irish brogue makes them hicks, yokels, dirty peasants trying to rise above their stations, which, I guess, is what the Macedonians were. Farrell looks the part though, combining the Greek idea of prettiness with raw, animal ferocity. Angelina Jolie, as his manipulative and snake-loving mother, is equally questionable; again, she looks the part, but past that I can’t say. But there’s no question that Val Kilmer, as Alexander’s father, gets into the swing of things; drunken, one-eyed, and scenery-chewing, yet vulnerable and disgusted by battle.
As uncertain as Stone sometimes is about how he’s going to treat Alexander, he’s equally uncertain about how to treat Mediterranean homosexuality. At that time and place, it was no big deal, and that’s how I expected Stone would portray it. We’re used to seeing the soldiers riding into the conquered villages and groping the sultry ladies who are eyeing them; so this time around they’d grope sultry boys. Instead Stone seems to linger—voyeuristically, uncomfortably, questioningly, what?—in long shot. Could it be that the modern master of not-explaining-anything—watch Nixon and tell me if that movie throws you any bones—is actually taking extra time to show how “then” was different than “now?” It can’t be that simple, and it doesn’t help that Alexander’s lifelong relationship with Hephastian (Jared Leto) is not especially moving.
Stone surrounds his leads with battalions of reliable performers in smaller parts. As Aristotle, Christopher Plummer is so fit and spry at 80-something that he puts me to shame. To name a few, the ever-girly Jonathan Rhys-Meyers (TitusFONT face="Verdana, Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif">) is one of Alexander’s generals and the bellowing Brian Blessed is the A-the-G’s boyhood combat trainer, because no one else can fill that role like Brian Blessed can. When the Great sits down with his counsel, we’ve seen all these faces before, even if we can’t place them.
It’s hard to say whether Alexander will be nominated for more Oscars or more Razzies. It’s a technically flawless and lavish production, overflowing with silk, satin, armor, robes, swords, palaces, vegetation, sweeping vistas, horses, elephants, and mascara. But it’s also the kind of audience-challenging audacity that people love to see fail, and Stone is precisely the kind of ambitious filmmaker-slash-field marshal that people love to see falter, just like we relished the fall of Martha Stewart. As I write this, lips are smacking with delight in the corners that never tried to understand Stone’s Shakespearean fact fudging in JFK and Nixon.
I saw Alexander at an afternoon matinee. I planned to go out that night for a friend’s birthday, but those plans changed. My wife suggested we watch one of our Netflix. I resisted. For all its shortcomings, I couldn’t get Alexander out of my blood. I felt like I had really seen a movie, an all-consuming sensory slap in the brain. That counts for something. Quoth the film’s narrator: "Alexander’s failures are greater than many men’s successes.” That about sums it up. I would rather be wrong with Oliver Stone than right with Jerry Bruckheimer.
Finished December 6th, 2004
Copyright © 2004 Friday & Saturday Night
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