A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

ALEXANDER jjj

2004, R, 175 mins.

Alexander: Colin Ferrell / Olympias: Angelina Jolie / King Philip: Val Kilmer / Hephaistion: Jared Leto / Roxane: Rosario Dawson / Old Ptolemy: Anthony Hopkins / Aristotle: Christopher Plummer

Directed by Oliver Stone / Written by Stone, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis

 

Like him or hate him, there is just no denying the fact that Oliver Stone is one of the more daring, bold, and sincere cinematic voices to emerge in contemporary film in the last 25 years.  Looking at his nearly flawless resume of films is proof to that assertion - from PLATOON, WALL STREET, BORN ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, TALK RADIO, NIXON, NATURAL BORN KILLERS, to even his finest work in 1991ís JFK.  To view this enormously broad resume of films is to bare witness to a director of enormously gifted range.  I have always admired Stone for being an artist that does not simply panhandle to one-note premises or take on projects with easily digestible themes or characters. 

Stone has emerged as a true auteur, a filmmaker whose own unique voice breathes clearly through all of his prevailing work.  Heís not the sort of director that neatly patches together his films for some sort of mass marketed consumption with absent minded and emotional vacant ideas.  Stone, maybe better than any modern director, has the unique ability to marry big and complex ideas with history and his own pinch of political whimsy.  No one can say that he is a subtle filmmaker, and his newest film, ALEXANDER, is revealing of this sentiment.  This sprawling, grand, epic, and exuberant telling of the infamous world conqueror may not be his finest hour as a director, but make no mistake about it Ė itís a multifaceted beast that only Stone could dream up. 

Critics have been awfully, awfully harsh on this film.  I am not altogether sure as to why.  Yes, ALEXANDER has gigantic aspirations in itself to be a great and daring spectacle of ideas and, moreover, it wants to be a super-intelligent, introspective, thinking manís epic (this isnít GLADIATOR, folks).  For the most parts, it truly does succeed.  Many moments of ALEXANDER are, indeed,  great sights to behold, and although some of Stoneís trademark directorial eccentricities are not visible all the time (this is one of his much more visually subdued and straightforward of films),  his voice is still felt through the dialogue and characters.  ALEXANDER is unabashedly self-indulgent, sparse on some ideas, a little long on running time, and needlessly told through a voice over narration that kind of meanders from one maddening philosophical rambling to the next.  The film may be a bit of a swollen epic that does not know where or when to pull back for restraint, but Stone still crafts a memorable and earnest look at one of historyís most famous figures.  Stone may not know how to hold back, but you can just sense his overwhelming zest and passion of this project through its three hour running time.  This is not a typical paint-by-numbers sword and sandal epic; Stone, as he demonstrates with many of his other films, goes a bit deeper than that. 

The first aspect that strikes me the most favourably about Stoneís retelling of the story of Alexander the Great is just how sincere and passionate he makes the material, not to mention the man himself.  Refreshingly, Alexander here is not presented as a cardboard cutout of an Adonis (like Brad Pittís Achilles in this yearís TROY).  He is played greatly by Colin Ferrell more as a theatrical Hamlet-like figure than a grounded protagonist.  This may be one of the more intrinsically interesting of the more recent historical figures presented on screen.  Stoneís Alexander is not a perfect man by any definition.  Heís a larger-than-life personality with great flaws, and it is this attention to these foibles that is the undercurrent of his character, not to mention the rest of the film.  Alexander is not chiefly defined by his greatness, but by his flaws.  Heís strong and passionate to be sure, but he is also stubborn, sometimes weak-willed, and plagued by delusions of his own greatness while simultaneously dealing with his own inner demons of self-doubt.  If there was more of an emotionally conflicted man who was able to conquer most of the know world, please let me know. 

Some have complained of the limited amount of coverage that Stoneís film has on the life of Alexander, but those same people forget that a detailed exploration would require a mini-series and not just a three-hour feature film.  Nevertheless, Stone does a fairly decent job of providing key highlights to his life.  Hereís a Cole Notes version of his story, for the uninitiated.  Alexander (Ferrell) is the son of Philip of Macedonian (Val Kilmer, in a scenery chewing performance) and Queen Olympias (the vibrant Angelina Joile).  It seems that Olympias has always insisted that Alexanderís father is Zeus, but is seemingly kind of hazy on the details as to how that is possible.  Yet, Alexander maintains a kind of love/hate relationship with both parents, often desperately trying to win the respect of both.  Despite the fact that he, as a young boy, tames a violent horse and impresses his dad, both he and his mother are banished from the kingdom.  Of course, his mother, the shadowy figure that she appears to be, pleads with Alexander to seize the throne before dear old dad murders him.  Conveniently for both, Philip himself is murdered and little Allie rules Macedonia. 

Subsequently, as most who have studied history can already testify to, it is at this point in his young life where Alexander sets out to conquer the known world.  He defeats the other Greek city-states, the Persians, and just about everyone else that he feels stands in his way.  He eventually is stopped, in India, and dies at a very young and tender age of 32.  Yet, what Stone does here is depict Alexander as a tyrant that is, amazingly, quite open to ideas.  Many moments of the film revel in his philosophy of a sort of all-inclusive nationalism, a deep penetrating desire to unite all people under one ruler.  The film is sort of ambiguous of that concept, because, when you really think about it, if you are a conquered people, do you have the power to say no to the ruler?  Alexander is also shown as a military strategist that did not go with the status quo and put many at arms with him over his highly contested methods on the battlefield.  

Beyond his military exploits, Alexander remained a duplicitous character on the home front as well.  Despite the fact that he was clearly homosexual, as many scenes with him and his childhood friend Hephaistion (Jerred Leto) display (contrary to rumour, there is no graphic gay sex scenes in the film, just a lot of subliminal and not so subtle moments between the two), Alexander does take a wife in the form of an Asian Bride (Rosario Dawson).  This move is also bold in the sense that his advisors plead with him to take a Greek bride instead.  Nevertheless, he takes the bride of his choice, despite the fact that he truly loves Hephaistion and only uses his new bride for procreational purposes. 

The one aspect of the film that may surprise many is how confidently Stone manages to give life to the battle scenes.  Many of them are virtuoso moments of epic mayhem and kind of transport us with more emotional resonance than TROY ever did.  Two in particular stand out.  The first, which  involves him battling the Persians at Gaugamela,  has the type of scope and grandeur than would have made David Lean proud and, refreshingly, the use of real extras, for the most part, is put front and center and CGI additions are kept to a minimal (computers work great in films directed by Jackson and Lucas, but are a distraction in historical epics). 

I especially liked how Stone has quiet moments in this battle that shows an eagle (a recurring metaphorical symbol) soar far overhead of the proceedings that adds scope and depth the sheer numbers of the soldiers.  The battles are bloody, chaotic, all-over-the-place and messy.  One of the latter battles, in India, is quite marvelous and brilliant, where Alexander and his men battle troops on huge war elephants.  Stones plays a lot here with multiple film stocks, slow motion, fast editing, and colour filters to give this scene a much needed dosage of the surreal.  Those who donít digest this type of playful use of the film medium miss the point Ė Stone paints this scene expressionistically, which heightens the emotion sometimes more than a realistic use of colour. 

The performances, for the most part, are universally solid.  Angelina Jolie, looking as fetching and sexy as ever in the role of Olympias, takes great pains to make this mother a Lady Macbeth figure with the right level of cunning and theatricality.  Val Kilmer, as Philip, is a real treat, who prances around, often drunk and rambling, but comes across with a fiery demeanor and a deep sense of family pride.  Colin Ferrell probably gives the most thankless performance as the dense and layered character of Alexander.  He rightfully plays the character with boldness, charisma, and much needed passion (he make not rank right up there with OíToole as T.E. Lawrence or ever Gibson as William Wallace, but he still gives a performance of vitality).  He essentially encapsulates the pathos and energy of the man, and despite the overall flamboyance of the character (and dialogue), Ferrell pulls it all off wonderfully.  He has rarely been so cagey, determined, and confident with a performance. 

ALEXANDER is not a great epic, and it does miss the mark on more than a few occasions.  Rosario Dawson is criminally underdeveloped as Alexanderís bride, and her real lack of involvement in the story hinders it somewhat.  She has the charisma and carries the part as far as she can, but Stone forgets to develop her.  He also fails to explore more with the relationship between Alexander and Hephaistion, who is played so sparsely by Jerred Leto that, oftentimes, we forget heís even a character.  The two seem to spend more time exchanging lustful glances and hugging one another than they do engaging in any meaningful dialogue.  Some of the narrative is all over the map as well.  Stone, very awkwardly, fails to show the death of Philip, but then later decides to show it in a flashback, maybe realizing the lack of closure that the character had in the first act.  His death is only mentioned at first in a voice over narration by an old Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) who narrates the film and provides a bookend to the story.  I found this superfluous at best, and Hopkinsí endless musings on the nature of man, conquering, and empire building had me checking my watch a few too many times. 

ALEXANDER may not be one of Stoneís best films, but itís still a sincere and honest attempt by a great director to tackle material that may have proved too daunting for others.  The film may be ponderous, slow moving at times, and wickedly confused in terms of its narrative, but it still remains a wonderful film with ideas and features a strong and perseverant mind behind it.  Some may not like Stone or his infusing of his own politics into historical figures, but Alexander (much like NIXON) revels in these types of flamboyant excesses and personifies a film thatís bold and boisterous.  Itís a film of wild pomp and circumstance, and may feel more like a theatrical Shakespearean tragedy than a grounded historical film, but I still applaud Stone for making a film that was always watchable and engaging with its subject matter.  ALEXANDER may be a bit incomplete when all is said and done, but that does not mean that itís the absolute failure that critics have been labeling it as.  The film is far too ambitious for that sort of baseless criticism, and Stoneís own inherent fascination with the subject matter comes through in every moment.

 

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