June 2024

Alexander (2004)


DIRECTOR: Oliver Stone


Colin Farrell, Angelina Jolie, Val Kilmer, Jared Leto, Rosario Dawson, Anthony Hopkins, Christopher Plummer, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, John Kavanagh, Brian Blessed


Best-known for controversial, politically-charged fare like Natural Born Killers, JFK, and Nixon, Oliver Stone’s latest venture, the epically-mounted but narratively disjointed historical drama Alexander, is more cinematically straightforward than his previous efforts but unfortunately lacks the focus and drive to maintain consistent interest throughout its three-hour running time.

While Stone jumps restlessly and distractingly forwards and backwards in time throughout, we follow a sketch of the life of Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), from his boyhood under the influence of his alcoholic father, the one-eyed King Philip of Macedonia (Val Kilmer) and his witchy, plotting mother Queen Olympia (Angelina Jolie), who encourages both his mistrust of his father and his ambition, to his crusade to conquer the known world, taking him from his triumphal victory parade into Babylon to his routing of the Persian Empire, to his further campaigns into India, where endless rain, disease, and fearsome resistance spelled disaster.  Along the way, we focus on pivotal aspects of his personal life, principally his love-hate relationships with his mother and father, his intensely close relationship with his confidant (and probable lover) Hephaestion (Jared Leto), and his marriage to the barbarian princess Roxana (Rosario Dawson), which seems primarily motivated by a desire for a son who is not produced.  Meanwhile, the longer Alexander’s obsessive quest to “go further” drags on, the more war-weary and discontent his once-devoted soldiers become.

Alexander the Great became King at twenty, had created one of the largest empires in ancient history by thirty, and died at thirty-two.  To this day he is held up as a legendary military tactician and leader of men.  Sounds like the subject of a rollicking war epic, right?  Well, it no doubt could have been, but unfortunately Alexander, while not without its virtues, is seldom as riveting as it could, should, have been.  On the plus side, its failures are not from lack of effort.  It is said that when the mighty fall, it is from a greater height, and this could be applied to both Alexander himself and his cinematic biographer Oliver Stone, an audacious filmmaker unafraid of being polarizing, who has made a,  I believe, well-intentioned, earnest film that is trying to say something, perhaps several things, but can’t settle into a focused way to handle its subject.  Considering the colossal time, money, and effort Stone poured into this, and the multiple director’s cuts he has produced of it since its initial release, he clearly finds Alexander fascinating, and the criticism has been made by various critics that part of Alexander‘s problem is that it is a labor of love which the director made principally for himself, not anyone else.  In fact, Stone tries to say so much about Alexander’s psychological makeup, his ambiguous sexuality, the entire socio-political context of his life and campaigns, that the movie is bogged down by its own earnest speechifying, embodied by the endless narration of Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who served under Alexander as a young soldier (Elliot Cowan), looking back forty years later and trying to sum up his idol’s life.  Stone’s chronological jumping around gets tiresome.  One scene will bear the subtitle ’12 years later’, the next ‘9 years earlier’, then again ’13 years later’.  It’s clear that Stone is trying to jump around between pivotal moments of Alexander’s life, tying some together, showing how one moment affected the other, and weave it all together into some sort of statement of his character and life, but he doesn’t have the focus to pull it all together into a cohesive whole, and the end result is simply distracting and kills any momentum he fleetingly threatens to build up.  Another problem is Anthony Hopkins’ Ptolemy, who is an unnecessary and extraneous narrative device.  While Hopkins has a pleasant voice for narration and an eloquent and authoritative presence, Stone has him talk too much, committing the cardinal narrative sin of telling instead of showing, incessantly intoning about epic campaigns we skim through onscreen and telling us about Alexander’s charisma while the onscreen man shows too little of it.  Too often, Hopkins’ overly chatty narration makes us feel more like we’re watching a dry historical documentary than a rousing biopic.

Lest my review be too damning, Alexander has plenty of worthwhile moments.  It’s built on an epic scale, with sweeping shots of ancient Babylon.  The battles are as epically-mounted as those in Braveheart or Kingdom of Heaven, though the first- the Battle of Gaugamela, at which Alexander routs the Persian King Darius (Raz Degan)- is weakened somewhat by lack of narrative context (it occurs before we are properly oriented to these characters and what they’re doing) and choppy editing.  The most memorable, and one of the best sequences of the entire movie, is a battle much later in the jungle of India, where Alexander’s force are cut to ribbons, graphically, by warriors riding armored elephants.  The violence is every bit as bloody as that of Braveheart or Gladiator, and the sequence achieves a sort of horror before it’s over.  The young actors playing the boyhood Alexander and Hephaestion (Connor Paulo and Patrick Carroll) are physically well-cast, and instantly recognizable as the older characters; less bother is made with Angelina Jolie, who looks exactly the same when she’s laughably supposed to be Colin Farrell’s mother as she does when he’s a baby.

 When it comes to legendary warrior-conquerors of the ancient world, Colin Farrell is unfortunately closer to Brad Pitt in Troy than Russell Crowe in Gladiator, veering between effective scenes and others where he is cringingly overwrought (in a scene where Alexander has a weepy meltdown late in the movie, Farrell’s performance is over-the-top to the point of being unintentionally comical), though his miscasting is exacerbated by the script’s schizophrenic intentions.  Most biopics of legendary historical figures either glorify them as larger-than-life figures, or demythologize them into the warts-and-all human beings they actually were, but Stone tries to have it both ways, giving lots of lip service to Alexander’s inspirational charisma while harping on his insecurities and self-doubts, and it doesn’t really work.   Ptolemy informs us that ‘he was a god, or the closest I’ve ever seen’, but what we actually see onscreen is a very human man so plagued with doubts and various mommy and daddy issues that we have a hard time swallowing that he inspired thousands of men to follow him beyond the reaches of the known world for years on end.  Farrell’s Alexander lacks authority and doesn’t come across like the dynamic leader the movie expects us to buy him as.

The supporting cast is fine, with Val Kilmer as the alcoholic Philip, who tries to rape his wife in front of baby Alexander’s eyes but seems to care for his son in his rough fashion, and Angelina Jolie as the slinky, Lady Macbeth-esque Olympia, who does a lot of playing with snakes.  To add to her vampiness, while Farrell speaks with his natural Irish brogue, Jolie talks like she’s from Transylvania.  It’s a weird, campy performance, and Jolie seems to be enjoying herself, though whether she adds to the movie or distracts from it is open to debate (I’m not sure of the answer myself).  More subdued is Jared Leto, who brings a low-key earnestness to Hephaestion, who seems to be the only character who truly knows Alexander, accepts him as he is, and cares for him with no ulterior motives (though, like Farrell, he’s saddled with a lot of overwrought dialogue).  Rosario Dawson doesn’t have much to do besides look fierce, do a little exotic dancing, and bare all in a sex scene that’s more like a battle for dominance than lovemaking.  The rest of the cast includes a few recognizable faces in smaller roles, like John Kavanagh, Jonathan Rhys-Meyers, Brian Blessed, Christopher Plummer in a nice cameo as Aristotle, and, of course, Anthony Hopkins.

Viewers who are bothered by homosexuality will be made uncomfortable by aspects of Alexander. While Colin Farrell and Jared Leto never share a sex scene or even a kiss, it’s made well clear that Alexander and Hephaestion’s relationship goes beyond friendship, and that Hephaestion is the true love of Alexander’s life.  Alexander likely drew some viewers with its battle scenes bringing memories of the testosterone-fueled entertainment of Braveheart, but likely also alienated some of those same viewers who weren’t used to or enthusiastic about rooting for a warrior hero who is obviously not heterosexual.  In fact, Alexander is portrayed as preferring men and having sex with women primarily to produce an heir.  As evidence of the various ways in which it truly completely satisfied almost no one, Alexander was attacked by conservative Greeks not willing to accept that one of their legends might have been gay, and criticized from the other direction by gay or gay-friendly reviewers who criticized its double standard in graphically showing Alexander and Roxana rolling around naked in the throes of passion but timidly shying away from even the smallest of kisses between Alexander and Hephaestion.  The movie may think it’s being bold with the less-than-subtle homoerotic undertones between the two men, but compared to Colin Farrell and Rosario Dawson rolling around naked, he and Jared Leto exchanging a lot of lingering puppy eyes, flowery dialogue, and chaste hugs just makes its portrayal of their relationship look wishy-washy, like the movie has something it wants to say but is afraid to fully commit to it.

But at the same time, Stone is not seeking to make a Braveheart.  His focus is on Alexander’s internal demons, not his famous battles, a thoughtful, introspective approach that makes Alexander more character study than war epic and portrays the young warrior-king as an outwardly confident but insecure young man driven by complex psychological issues rooted deep in his psyche and stemming from a compulsion to both live up to and escape his mother’s influence.  There’s nothing wrong with going into a movie with those intentions, but it doesn’t make for terribly stirring cinema.  Stone, never one for subtlety, beats the dead horse and makes Alexander, for all the talk about his charismatic and inspirational presence, come across as wishy-washy, tormented by self-doubt, obsessive about his vague goals of ‘going further’, and indecisive.

At the bottom line, Alexander is a bit of a mess, but it’s a big, bold, epically-mounted mess that at least fails while trying mightily.  I admire and respect the ambition; unlike Wolfgang Petersen’s Hollywoodized misfired ‘epic’ Troy, Alexander at least says what it wants to say instead of following Hollywood formula, reaches far, and has ideas.  But Troy, while generic in a way that Alexander cannot be said to be, at least had a narrative with some structure and clarity, while Alexander can’t seem to make up its mind exactly what overarching point it’s trying to make about Alexander’s life and campaigns.  Oliver Stone is clearly fascinated by Alexander, and he seems bursting with statements he wants to make about him, but his reach exceeds his grasp, and he gives a fragmented sketch of Alexander’s life instead of a whole picture.  The result is provocative and admirable in some ways but also clunky and lumbering.  A failed experiment is more laudable in my view than a successful cardboard cutout, but it remains a failed experiment.