I have a lot of mixed feelings with Oliver Stone’s latest folly, Alexander. On one hand I admire his insistence on stirring away from the typical whitewashed Hollywood approach towards the genre, on the other hand I resent the fact that he has not been able to provide this film with a cohesive structure and vision.
The story of the relentless conqueror who by the age of 32 had amassed the greatest empire the world had ever seen, becomes a royal mess of a film in the hands of this talented director. Mr. Stone’s harshest critics have always focused on the controversial content of his films and on his free handling of historical facts. But the strength of Mr. Stone's films has never been on his handling of the facts of history but in it's reinterpretation of history as myth, all of this supported by the richness of his imagery and his dynamic directing style.
Mr. Stone has always been able to weave facts with myth to support his vision and you would think that the story of Alexander would provide plenty of material for his creative muse. Unfortunately and surprisingly the film's deepest problems lie in its unfocused approach to its subject. Mr. Stone fails to provide any insight into who Alexander was or how he attained so much. Instead, Mr. Stone focuses on a psycho-sexual melodrama full of Oedipal and homo erotic elements that although fascinating hardly justifies or explains effectively who Alexander was. Instead of coherently positioning his story within the political events that lead to his conquests, Mr. Stone seems to be more interested in profiling Alexander’s sexual appetites and character flaws. His Alexander is psychologically weak, cursed with self-doubt, almost demented. The film concentrates on Alexander's stormy relationships with his mother, father, wife, and his inseparable companion, Hephaestion, and breezes through his political life almost as an afterthought.
The film’s structure is a big mess; jumpy without the slightest sense of cohesion, uneven in some sections, dragging on with no end in sight, others times glossing over important incidents. Stone tries to resolve this problem with the running narration by Ptolemy using him as a road map through decades of history, attempting to bridge gaps in the disjointed narrative. A key episode - the death of Alexander's father - is skipped, only to be shown later via flashback. The movie comes to a halt with the title "Macedonia -- Eight Years Earlier”. For a few minutes you feel like the projectionist has mixed up the film reels by mistake. There are also endless number of monologues and debates around the Machiavellian politics surrounding Alexander’s campaign, but they lack dramatic drive and provide very little insight on Alexander or his military skill. Two of the battles are shown but many are mentioned only in passing by the narrator. The first battle is choppily directed relying heavily on hand held shots and very little establishing shots that add to the confusion. This approach was effectively used by Stone in his previous films like JFK and Platoon to achieve a documentary like feeling but does not work on lengthy battle scenes which require a certain logic in order to engage an audience. This is a big disappointment coming from such a technical wizard as Mr. Stone. It is also frustrating when such a talented director has to rely on the Cliff Notes approach of a narrator to make sense of his narrative.
The film also suffers with a script full of bad dialogue bordering on camp. Stuffy catchphrases such as "By the sweet breath of Aphrodite" and "By Apollo's eye" are constantly uttered by the characters, my favorite worse line being when Alexander talks about his resentment towards his mother in which he proclaims “It’s a high ransom she demands for living in the womb”.
Admirably Mr. Stone's doesn't shy away from Alexander’s diverse sexual appetites. Alexander loves Hephaistion and has married Roxane for political purposes. Sure there is a lengthy scene in which Alexander has wild sex with his wife but puts her on the side line for the rest of the movie soon after that. Unfortunately after flirting with this idea Mr. Stone whitewashes Hephaistion and Alexander’s relationship limiting it to a few verbal exchanges and a few hugs. If Mr. Stone was able to provide a graphic and over the top sex scene with the least influential character of the wife and he is not willing to make Hephaistion, a major figure in the life of Alexander, as erotic a character as the wife, he is selling out and sabotaging the logic of the story.
And even within this mess there are moments that show Mr. Stone in fine form. There is a battle scene shot from the view of a soaring bird . There’s Alexander’s spectacular entrance into Babylon which rivals Elizabeth Taylor’s entrance to Rome in ‘Cleopatra’ And the film's climactic battle in India, brutal and bloody, in which the Macedonians fight the enemy riding elephants is strikingly photographed, flushing the frame with red and ending in a haunting image of a fallen and blood soaked Alexander.
Contrary to what most critics have said about Colin Farrell’s performance he is actually excellent with his honest and passionate interpretation of Alexander. Jared Leto is subdued as Alexander's male lover. Val Kilmer delivers a complex performance as Philip and Angelina Jolie gives an over-the-top and sexy performance as Olympia, Alexander’s incestual mother. Other performers include Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy the narrator, Christopher Plummer as Aristotle, and Brian Blessed as a trainer.
In his effort to fit it all in Oliver Stone has created a film that is gloriously stunning while numbing at times, daring and safe, fascinating and incoherent, sexy and reserved but more than anything frustrating with its failure to live up to its occasional glimpses of inspiration.
Didactic, aggressive and in-your-face American writer-director who, after directing a couple of horrors (Seizure and The Hand) and writing Midnight Express and Scarface, settled into his own brand of political state-of-the-nation films like Salvador, the Oscar-winning Platoon, Wall Street, Talk Radio, JFK, Natural Born Killers and Nixon. Slightly out of character were The Doors and U-Turn: respectively, a celebration of the late sixties and a sweaty thriller. In 2004 he experienced his biggest flop with Alexander, a historical epic, but followed it with the reverent World Trade Center and a biopic of then just-leaving President George W. Bush. A belated sequel to Wall Street and gangster movie Savages were next. Say what you like, he has made his mark and loads of people have an opinion on him.