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Oliver Stone Loses Alexander's Story
By Cole Smithey
You know from an early scene of tiresome exposition by Anthony Hopkins that Oliver Stone's three-hour sword-and-sandal epic is doomed. You see a giant scar across the right side Hopkins's forehead mysteriously move to the left side between shots. Then comes Colin Farrell's Irish accent that wrestles against Angelina Jolie's faux Russian intonation like a cat and a monkey fighting in a burlap bag. For all its attention to detail in two reasonably good battle scenes, Stone's movie fails to tell the complex story of one of the most enigmatic conquerors in history. But more than that, Stone doesn't present characters that the audience can believe in as representative of their historic roles.
There's an undue controversy surrounding Oliver Stone's pre-Christian depiction of Alexander as a bi-sexual lover that may give the movie mileage with gay audiences who are likely to be disappointed at the soft-peddled relationship between Alexander (Farrell) and his lifelong friend Hephaistion (Jared Leto).
Apart from both characters wearing matching eyeliner throughout the movie, and sharing hushed conversations and hugs, there isn't enough subtext to hang a horseshoe on. Hephaistion is Alexander's effeminate battle commander whose masochistic existence revolves around being mistreated. We hear Hephaistion and Alexander profess their love for one another, but never see the price of their relationship because they never challenge one another. To his credit Jared Leto gives the most convincing performance in the film as Alexander's wide-eyed paramour.
"Alexander" opens with a clumsy homage to Orson Welles's "Citizen Kane wherein Alexander's dying hand drops a ring onto the floor in 323 B.C. The clunky backward-gazing narrative device is sunk deeper by a segue to 40-years later when Alexander's elderly military general Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) dictates his version of Alexander's life to a Greek scholar who busily fills endless scrolls in a palatial library.
Angelina Jolie enjoys some early scene-chewing with live snakes (she's seldom shown during the movie without them) as Alexander's domineering mother Olympias. Alexander's battle-scarred father King Philip (Val Kilmer) appears in her bedroom and attempts to violently extract sexual satisfaction even as young Alexander watches from the same bed.
Our crash course in Alexander's childhood shifts from oedipal mother worship to homosexual and racist teachings by Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Alexander covets his father's throne. Connor Paolo gives a confident performance as the young Alexander. He shares a remarkable likeness to Collin Farrell that temporarily tips the scales toward some suspension of disbelief.
Although Alexander The Great won more than 70 battles during the 12-years of his reign, Stone dramatizes just two engagements that are meant to signify how Alexander and his armies conquered millions of square miles of foreign territory. The first conflict at Gaugamela is a 12-minute war sequence that attempts to exhibit the cleverness of Alexander's military strategy while giving the viewer a taste of the brutality involved. However, the painstaking sequence lacks an adequate narrative structure to properly acquaint the audience with its characters.
The film's payoff finale battle involves Alexander's horse-led army
attacking India's Elephant bound troops in the thick of an India forest. Oliver Stone shifts to an odd red-tinged film treatment that gives an hallucinatory quality and foreshadows Alexander's imminent death. The psychedelic color scheme embellishes the battle's cruel violence in a way that makes it seem more disturbing in its abstraction. When one of Alexander's soldiers slices off the trunk of a giant elephant, you feel a kind of empathy for the animal that goes beyond any sensitivity you experience for the soldiers who compulsively fight for the sake of fighting.
A heavy-handed musical score by Vangelis ("Blade Runner") hobbles "Alexander" with bombastic surges of sonic information that further removes the audience from the movie. There isn't a single scene in the film that is improved by the Vangelis's music.
The old commander Ptolemy pedantically says of Alexander, "No tyrant ever gave back so much." It's a troubling notion for a leftist filmmaker like to Oliver Stone to endorse. As Ptolemy preaches on and on during the movie about Alexander's place in history, I wonder at Oliver Stone's little-seen documentary about Fidel Castro for which he interviewed the Cuban dictator.
"Alexander" comes at a time when America is poised as a fear-ridden empire overreaching its boundaries while neglecting its strained domestic issues. To regard Alexander as a man who achieved amazing military success is not necessarily to view him as a hero. Perhaps Alexander's bi-sexuality is an escape clause that Oliver Stone planted in the film to distance right-wing audiences from associating too freely with the warrior. Either way, the truth is never what it's cracked up to be. It's too bad that American cinema hasn't improved on the sword-and-sandal epic in the past 40-years. At this point it's a bankrupt genre.
Rated R. 156 mins.