Judge Neal Masri is confused: Was Alexander the guy who crossed the Alps on elephants, or the guy who traveled to China and discovered macaroni?
"Fortune favors the bold."—Virgil
"When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer."—Hans Gruber
One of the most maligned movies of 2004 is…not that bad. In a fine example of how critics and Hollywood gang up on a movie before anybody has seen it, Oliver Stone delivers an epic take on the life of Alexander the Great. Not up to par with the great Hollywood epics, but not as bad as the critical cheap shots may lead you to believe.
Facts of the Case
The incredible life of Alexander the Great is epic movie material if I've ever seen any. His rise to ruler of The World by his mid twenties is chronicled here (with noticeable gaps in the timeline). His personal life is just as fascinating as his public one. His decidedly odd family life (as depicted by Stone, anyway) and his lovers (both male and female) are just as integral to the story as his military victories. Perhaps, the ultimate momma's boy just wanted to be loved.
Let's get this out of the way right now: I am an Olive Stone apologist. I have great respect for him as a filmmaker and have enjoyed everything he's done to some extent.
Like Lawrence of Arabia (my favorite historical epic), Alexander begins with the death of the protagonist (and no, giving something away that happens in the first 60 seconds of the movie is not a spoiler). That's probably where the comparisons end. Where Lawrence's script was literate and witty, this one uses a sledgehammer where a light tap would probably work. However, is that not Oliver Stone filmmaking? JFK, Platoon, Natural Born Killers…these are not works of subtlety.
We immediately fall into the biopic trap of trying to show the roots of almost every quirk (and, of course, tragic flaw) in our hero's youth. Alexander's (Colin Farrell) Rosebud is his wild woman mother (Angelina Jolie). She is the wife of Phillip, king of Macedonia (Val Kilmer) and has some relationship issues. Angelina's campy performance has been the most maligned aspect of the movie as far as I can see. Yes, it's over the top. It seems to belong in another movie. However, historical epics are rife with this kind of kooky overacting (see any performance in The Ten Commandments). In my opinion, she's not a deathblow to the movie.
Anthony Hopkins is Ptolemy, our narrator. This sort of narration usually strikes me as a postproduction act of desperation to make up for spotty storytelling. This is no exception. In my opinion, if a movie is well told, there is almost never a need for narration. However, Sir Anthony's distinguished and soothing tones seem to class up almost any proceeding. His Ptolemy is perched in Alexandria long after the events of the movie and provides the frame story for Alexander.
We are introduced to Alexander, where else but his mother's bed. King Phillip is partying with his buddies and mom is filling Alexander's head with tales of Achilles and the Gods. She even implies that Alexander himself may be of divine origin. And I thought my mom pushing me to be a dentist was bad. Without giving away too much, Kilmer and Jolie ham it up big time. We are not talking Ward and June Cleaver here.
We are then quickly introduced to the love of Alexander's life, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Unfortunately, Leto is not given much to do in the role except stare at Farrell longingly and be there for a hug every now and then. Much to-do has been made of the relationship as depicted between Hephaistion and Alexander. I for one, think it did not go far enough. There is much historical basis in the life of Alexander—and ancient Greek culture, for that matter—for a homosexual relationship. Prior to our Judeo-Christian value structure, this was really no big deal. It was what it was. I think Stone wimped out a bit here. When I heard all the buzz about the allegedly graphic depictions, I was prepared for more. Oliver must have caved to studio pressure to tone it down a bit. All in all, much ado about nothing.
After all the relationships are established, Alexander has to get busy conquering the world. It is here that the movie stumbles a bit. I was especially confused by the centerpiece big battle. Spatially, I had no idea what was going on. In this post-Lord of the Rings world, I have seen one too many huge digital armies charging at each other. The novelty has worn off, I'm afraid. Alexander then goes on to tell its story with far too many flashbacks (and even one flash-forward, I think). I believe this was toned down a bit in the shorter director's cut and the story made more linear. Not having viewed it, I cannot say so with any authority.
About half way through the movie, Alexander marries a wildcat tribeswoman named Roxane (Rosario Dawson) whose main character traits seem to be pouting and getting it on. Some attempt is made to establish a love triangle between Alexander, Roxane, and Hephaistion. There is never any doubt, however, that Hephaistion is really Alexander's true love. Roxane disappears and reappears, as the plot requires, in an underwritten role. When she's introduced in a bit of intrigue late in the movie, it's too little, too late.
At this point, we need to consider Colin Farrell's performance as Alexander. Colin does not command the screen in the way that is typical for this kind of biopic. I think we have a case of a good character actor in a place where a larger-than-life leading man is needed. Say what you will about that hammy Charlton Heston, but try to close your eyes and picture anyone else as Moses. That guy could carry a big movie. Colin's performance is neither brilliant nor embarrassing. I think he delivered exactly what Oliver Stone asked of him. Unfortunately, I don't think this is the kind of project that plays to Mr. Farrell's strengths.
The typical epic structure of triumphs, followed by big failures, is followed here. We are left with a sometimes fascinating, but sometimes frustrating film of an incredible life. I am not sure why Alexander was doomed before it was ever released. In a year that saw Catwoman, Van Helsing, and The Whole Ten Yards among numerous other duds, I'll never know why the daggers were out for this one months before its release. It's not nearly the train wreck many critics have depicted it to be. I appreciate risk taking in movie making. Oliver Stone was swinging for the fences here and certainly not playing it safe. If you want to see something completely by the numbers and innocuous, rent Cheaper by the Dozen. I guarantee you won't be offended or challenged.
A few words about video and audio. I found the 2:40:1 anamorphic transfer to be beautiful with no apparent issues to be had. Dolby Digital 5.1 audio was loud with thundering subwoofer action when the battles called for it. I found there to be a bit less atmospheric background sounds going on than you usually find in a dynamic, recent release like this one. Minor quibble aside, I found the sound to be immersive and appropriate to the epic content.
The main extra here is a commentary from Oliver Stone and historian Robin Lane Fox. Oliver has always given good commentary and can certainly talk the entire time himself without much down time. As usual, Oliver gives a good balance of production info and character/story info. Mr. Lane Fox is a bit too enamored of Mr. Stone and there is a little too much back-patting for the movie in general and Oliver in particular. His main contribution is to point out how little is known of Alexander's life. This dearth of information mainly means the screenwriters were free make up most of the details.
The "making of" portion is divided into three sections and mainly consists of fly-on-the-wall observation of the production mixed with interviews with the primaries. A little better than the typical puff pieces you see on an HBO behind the scenes feature, but nothing earth-shattering here. It does a good job of chronicling how hard it is to wrangle extras and to shoot a production this big, though.
DVD-ROM content is also included. As usual, it doesn't work on my Apple iBook. It was not reviewed. Perhaps one day I'll find ROM content that works in my computer. All in all, I give the extras pretty high marks. There is quality but not much quantity.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
At times confusing in it's timeline. Too much scenery chewing by virtually everyone involved. Does the Director's Cut improve this film? I cannot say, but I recommend you start with this one and if interested view the Director's Cut.
Alexander is a workable and sometimes fascinating historical epic. It certainly doesn't deserve the drubbing it got in the press. Wonderful cinematography and a fascinating subject are undermined by uneven performances and some poor storytelling decisions, but there's a lot to like. I'll take my history this way instead of as an over sentimentalized bit of claptrap like The Patriot or Pearl Harbor any day. Forget the buzz and check it out. Rent it. If, like me, you find much to enjoy there are plenty of copies on any used DVD rack. Give it a chance and make the decision for yourself. My bet is you'll find a lot to appreciate.
I pronounce a hung jury. Alexander has proven divisive among fans and critics, though that is par for the course for many Oliver Stone movies. A great DVD presentation is a good way to give this movie a fair day in court.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Oliver Stone and Historian Robin Lane Fox
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