Love him or hate him, Oliver Stone is rarely boring. Each new film he directs is a test of his ability to work his basic themes into new subject matter (those themes would be, roughly: the loss of innocence, the earning of manhood, the animal within the man, the corruption and hypocrisy of power, the isolation of the individual). At the age of 58, he’s still working through the issues that preoccupied him and the country as he came of age in the 1960s. His means aren’t subtle, but they can be breathtakingly effective, especially in scenes of violence. For all his Manichean tendencies, Stone’s attitude toward violence is atypically ambivalent: He gets off on violence as a cheap thrill while still wanting his audience to be horrified by brutality, and he’s willing to go as far as is necessary to achieve that (never acknowledging that this contributes to the audience’s desensitization, requiring the gore and the pace to be continually ratcheted up in order to create the same sickening jolt).
Given those characteristic themes and his extremely subjective approach, Stone is perhaps the best equipped of his generation of directors to bring a new perspective to the classic Cecil B. DeMille-type Hollywood historical epic. His manner of exploring large themes through the sensibility of a single character could be a vehicle for deflating some of the standard pomp of his historical predecessors in a way that other contemporary filmmakers didn’t do in such movies as Gladiator or Troy. His Alexander moves toward a more personal kind of epic, but that same quality that can be Stone’s strength is also his greatest weakness, driving him into the sort of self-indulgent exploration and re-exploration of those themes that eventually numbs the audience.
Derived from the celebrated biography of Alexander by Robin Lane Fox, who served as an uncredited historical advisor, Stone’s vision of the king owes as much to Mary Renault as to Plutarch, but what it’s really about is his own preoccupations. The script, which he co-wrote with Christopher Kyle, focuses on the title character’s growing obsession with expanding his empire rather than his early military successes (quashing uprisings throughout the empire he inherited from his father, Philip II of Macedon) or quaint tales such as his famed slicing of the Gordian knot. Stone is interested in portraying the flawed character of the man and the nature of his personal relationships rather than celebrating his martial genius or the changes he wrought by expanding Hellenic culture into the Near East. The interpretation is almost painfully Freudian. Within the first 10 minutes we get an Oedipus complex and a brutal primal scene in which Philip attempts to rape Olympias, Alexander’s mother, while a very young Alexander looks on.
Angelina Jolie seems the right choice for Olympias — what other actress could seem so perfectly at home draped with the writhing snakes that are her pets? — but her accent sounds inexplicably Russian. The rest of the cast has been directed to speak with an Irish accent, presumably so that Colin Farrell could use his natural speaking voice without seeming out of place. His performance is bracing, as revealing of the private world of the great leader as it is of his megalomaniacal will to power. His romantic relationship with Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his childhood companion and, later, cavalry commander, is handled with sensitivity and conviction. Perhaps part of the reason that it has already aroused such controversy is its simple matter-of-factness, contrasted (rather directly) with the way the makers of Troy hedged their bets by making Patroclus Achilles’ cousin rather than his lover.
The problem with Stone’s vision of Alexander is that it is, uncharacteristically, actually rather boring. At just under three hours, the movie could easily be 45 minutes shorter. Too many long sequences seem only to reiterate points that Stone has already driven home about Alexander’s troubling oedipal connection with Olympias and his single-minded obsession with spreading his domain eastward, to the consternation of his army, anxious to return home to their families after a campaign that stretches into six, seven, eight years. The movie loses energy when Stone repeats himself, and there are far too many of these scenes between his brilliantly staged, devastating battle scenes. As always, it is in the heat of physical conflict in which Stone shines, and the energy and chaos he brings to the battles here show the same intensity and horror he brought to the firefights in Platoon or the gridiron combat of Any Given Sunday. The cinematography, by Rodrigo Prieto, has a satisfying kinetic energy, and Jan Roelfs’ production design provides a stunning recreation of the ancient world, particularly in the brilliantly realized procession into Babylon, but Stone’s Alexander ultimately falls short of greatness.
Jeremy C. Fox is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Online Film Critics Society. You may email him at jeremycfox[at]gmail.com.
Alexander / Jeremy C. Fox
Film Reviews | May 12, 2006 | Comments ()