Director : Oliver Stone
Screenplay : Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Colin Farrell (Alexander), Angelina Jolie (Olympias), Val Kilmer (King Philip), Jared Leto (Hephaistion), Rosario Dawson (Roxane), Anthony Hopkins (Old Ptolemy), Christopher Plummer (Aristotle)
The advertising campaign for Alexander has assured us that “Fortune favors the bold,” and director Oliver Stone is clearly hoping that the Roman poet Virgil’s proclamation is as applicable to him as it is to the subject of his film. If ever there were a bold filmmaker, it is Stone, whose films over the past two decades have tackled some of the headiest subjects of modern American culture, from the Vietnam war, to corporate greed on Wall Street, to the assassination of JFK, to the tangled webs of media violence and celebrity culture. In tackling an ancient historical subject, however, Stone has bitten off more than he can chew, and his independently financed $150-million epic is a stylish dud.
In the grandiose tradition of old-school Hollywood visual splendor, Alexander explores the life of the pre-Christian Macedonian king Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell) who, by the time he was 25 years old, had conquered and united most of the known world. Alexander’s life and exploits are so expansive that, even with a running time of nearly three hours, the film feels strangely truncated, especially when Anthony Hopkins, playing Ptolemy as an old man, narrates quickly through major events to keep the story rolling. The real paradox is that the film simultaneously feels like it’s taking forever, with each hour slowly pouring into the next as characters pontificate in long speeches about the meaning of their lives and deeds. In other words, most of the film is filled with people talking, rather than doing.
Colin Farrell cuts an impressive figure as the blonde-maned Alexander, a difficult task given the character’s larger-than-life mythical status. If Stone does one thing really well, it’s keeping Alexander’s humanness at the forefront of the film, constantly playing back and forth between the reality of his existence and the mythical stories that were being told about him long before he died. Finding and exploring that nebulous space between the man and the myth is the primary goal of any historian, and Stone does an admirable job, although it is hard not to feel that he paints Alexander with a little too liberal a brush, positioning him as an ahead-of-his-time populist who embraced the ideals of Greek intellectualism and civility while also defending the humanity of races deemed by his own xenophobic countrymen as “barbaric.”
One of Stone’s favorite thematic devices is the protagonist torn between two fathers. In Platoon (1986), Charlie Sheen’s idealistic young grunt was pulled between the Christ-like Elias and the brutal Barnes, and in the end found that he was a product of both. In Wall Street (1987), Sheen again played a young man who found himself at a crossroads between the ideals of his working-class flesh-and-blood father and the powerfully seductive “greed is good” ethos of his adoptive Wall Street father, Gordon Gekko.
Stone again carries this theme into Alexander, except this time his protagonist is defined by an Oedipal struggle between father and mother. Alexander’s father, the one-eyed King Philip (Val Kilmer), is a model of military efficiency, but is otherwise a drunken lout whose bitterness is surpassed only by his ego. Philip models the primacy of violence and brute force, but little else. His mother, on the other hand, is a refined manipulator named Olympia (Angelina Jolie) who holds the young Alexander close to her so that she may live out her own selfish desires through his prowess. Thought to be a witch by many, Olympia is a seductive matriarch, a woman whose sharp political understanding cuts through and defines her relationship with her son. Jolie plays the part to the hilt, perhaps even taking it slightly overboard with her out-of-leftfield Transylvanian accent that makes her seem more vampy than cunning. Her performance isn’t quite in the Faye Dunaway-as-Joan Crawford stratosphere of camp, but it comes playfully, almost tantalizingly close.
But, that’s about as much fun as Alexander has to offer. Outside of Jolie’s campiness, the film is dreadfully serious and ponderous in plodding through its portrait of Alexander’s world travels and conquests. The narrative doesn’t flow so much as it lurches, which makes the film seem so much longer than it is. Considering that Stone’s JFK (1991) is a pinnacle of narrative efficiency given massive amounts of sometimes conflicting information, it is particularly confounding that Stone and his coscreenwriters, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, were unable to weave an intriguing narrative out of the strands of Alexander’s life.
There are two major battle sequences, which Stone depicts by alternating between literal bird’s eye view shots of hundreds of thousands of warriors and claustrophobic camerawork in the middle of the melee, which effectively conveys the confusion of battle but also leaves us literally clueless at times as to what’s going on. The final battle in India in which Alexander’s forces take on warlords and their elephants is an impressive bit of filmmaking, but Stone’s tendency to overstylize everything reaches a strange fever pitch when he makes the decision to bathe the end of the sequence in hallucinogenic crimson hues, as if we’re watching an old print in which all the red has begun to bleed out of the celluloid.
However, Alexander suffers most because the emotional impact of its subject’s life events is almost nonexistent. This includes Alexander’s tortured relationship with Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his best friend since childhood and the true love of his life. (Stone deals with Alexander’s homosexuality, but just barely, as he was clearly restrained by a desire to cater to a mass audience that likes its on-screen sex hetero.) There is a bit of life to the film when Alexander marries Roxane (Roasario Dawson), a fiery Serbian woman of no royalty whom he marries to make a political statement about integration. But, even that relationship quickly fades into the background and is tossed off with a passing bit of narration. Thus, we are left with almost nothing to grab onto emotionally, turning the film in little more than a well-mounted, but hollow history lesson that is the very antithesis of what its means to be bold.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 Warner Bros.