Friday, November 26, 2004I hope everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. Today is Black Friday, a day full of shopping and movie-attending. As a sane individual I am going to do neither and wait until Monday to do any shopping. It’s scary out there. But in honor of the latter, I decided to do a movie review.
I saw "Alexander" on opening night on Wednesday. I’d been very excited because I’d been waiting for an Alexander movie for about 10 years, particularly after Peter Jackson demonstrated how feasible new technologies made realistic battle scenes. Alexander the Great has been an obsession of mine since I was a kid. I mean really: King at 20, conqueror of the world at 25, dead at 32. What could be cooler than that? As I got older, of course, I struggled with my early hero-worship. Alexander was a very complicated man, and hard to judge as simply "good" or "bad." It is this complexity, the enigmatic character of Alexander, that I believed would make him an interesting character in a film. And the action scenes and romance would help it get made in the first place.
When I heard that Oliver Stone and Colin Farrell were tagged to create the new Alexander movie, I was concerned but hopeful. Stone was a good director (Wall Street, Platoon) who could get the financing necessary to do the job. And Farrell had the kind of rough rock-star charisma that would make him believable. But I knew about Stone’s uneven performances in films like Nixon and JFK, and Stone’s weak grasp on the psychology of power gave me pause. But I hoped for the best.
Boy was I wrong to do so. The movie was simply awful. Unlike other reviewers, I don't think the problem was the acting (except Angelina Jolie- wow was to that terrible. What’s with the Russian accent?). I think that Val Kilmer did an excellent job at the shrewd, cynical, semi-barbarous Philip II. And Colin Farrell was okay given what he had to work with. What sucked was the script. Stone could never seem to decide how he wanted to tell the story. He took Alexander’s complexity and just made it confusing.
Now to be fair, there were some good points. I won't jump on the historical inaccuracies, because all Stone really did was move some events around, which is fine. This is a movie, after all, and a director needs to take some poetic license. I wasn't crazy about how Stone made it look like Alexander lost that battle in India, because Alexander never came close to losing a battle. That’s part of what makes him so cool. But it really was no big deal.
The first half of the movie was tolerable, demonstrating the youthful Alexander and the conflicting and tumultuous relationship he had with his parents, powerful both personalities in their own right. The Battle of Gaugemela, although it combined elements of both Alexander's battles with Darius (who ran away at both of them!), was a pretty fair representation of ancient warfare: up close and brutal. And Stone’s portrayal of Alexander’s bisexuality was brave by any measure.
Where the film fell apart was the second half. Stone seems to have simply written himself into a corner he didn't know how to escape from. There was no real buildup to Alexander’s death, and only a weak representation of his struggles with his own people and new subjects.
I think perhaps Stone’s critical mistake (other than the bad dialogue) was his effort to tell the story from Alexander’s perspective. This deprives Alexander of his complexity, of his above-it-all heroic character. Perhaps the movie should have made Alexander the center of the movie, but shifted the perspective to those around him. Alexander was a powerful force in the lives of others. No one who met him was unchanged by his deeds or charisma. He was loved and feared but never ignored. Maybe by telling the story from the point of view of Haephestion, Roxanne, Darius, Olympias, Philip, Cleitus, Parmenio, Bagoas and the other key players in Alexander's life, Stone might have been able to convincingly demonstrate the ambiguous character of Alexander's personality. If he had done so, Stone might have been able to teach us about the many Alexanders without creating such a maddening mountain of mush.
Just a word or two on Alexander himself. A few of the reviewers have taken the easy road to criticize Alexander as just another bloodthirsty conqueror in the mold of Hitler and Genghis Khan. This is hardly fair. Alexander was a ruthless general, but he was also a magnanimous statesmen with a unique vision of his empire. One of his big problems was that he wanted an empire dominated not by the Macedonians but by a Graeco-Persian partnership. I give Stone credit for trying to tell this story, because it is an interesting one. Alexander was also in some senses the founder of chivalry, what with his heroic personal deeds, belief in the importance of personal honor, and treatment of women. Yes Alexander was clever, and amoral, and possessed by the urge to dominate. But at the same Alexander was compassionate, loyal, and able to articulate a different kind of future than anyone had thought of before.
I suppose I could do best by quoting Arrian in his Anabsis of Alexander:
"Whoever therefore reproaches Alexander as a bad man, let him do so; but let him first not only bring before his mind all his actions deserving reproach, but also gather into one view all his deeds of every kind. Then, indeed, let him reflect who he is himself, and what kind of fortune he has experienced; and then consider who that man was whom he reproaches as bad, and to what a height of human success he attained, becoming without any dispute king of both continents, and reaching every place by his fame; while he himself who reproaches him is of smaller account, spending his labour on petty objects, which, however, he does not succeed in effecting, petty as they are."