Tue November 23, 2004
A soap opera inside an epic.
By John DeSando, WCBE's "It's Movie Time"
If a leader has been called "great" for over 2000 years, would you dare to film his life? After all, an earlier attempt to biopic the "great" Achilles in "Troy" had a tepid run.
The "great" director Oliver Stone weighs in on "Alexander" starring Colin Farrell ("Phone Booth") in the titular role with Angelina Jolie ("Lara Croft") as his mother, Olympias. Now that's casting to get your incest subtext into full gear. Not that Stone is shy about Alexander's bisexuality either. Give the director credit; he loves the odd point of view, bearing in on the passions of the greatest general/king who ever lived. The film's strength is its weakness: As complicated as his life is, it can't help but be a soap opera inside an epic, and the two don't cohabit comfortably.
Uncomfortable because, where Brad Pitt's Achilles is a focused warrior with little other to show than his Michael-Jordan leaps and his prowess with the ladies, both certifiably god like, Farrell's Alexander must, but doesn't, exemplify the wit of a warrior and the charisma of a crowned prince morphed into king of the world. Farrell does well enough leaping between his lifelong love, Hephaestion, and the drive to produce a male heir with a selection of voluptuous candidates (no, not his serpentine mother, who under different circumstances would appear to be ready to supply the son/grandson). Jolie as mom is a Babylonian Lady Macbeth, an arch conniver whose bee sting lips are a symbol of her oversized ambition and ego. Her ever- present snakes make a pleasant phallic presence to remind us of the dangers in sexual conquest.
Despite my conflicted attitude toward this flawed film, I believe Stone once again, as he did in "JFK," provides a provocative point of view on a topic we all thought pretty straight forward--great guy, great life. "Alexander" is probably a variation of the current debate about war, specifically President Bush's "patriotic" invasion of Iraq. Alexander's pushing his troops to the ends of the world as known at that time and the troops' swing toward mutiny, echo the frustration of the US Army pushed to its limits by a president's challenging vision. That Alexander often treats his enemies with respect and a sincere goal of civilizing them but pushes his Macedonians beyond the pale of reason evokes thoughts of Bush's invasion, which some see as vengeful and foolhardy, costing thousands of lives while occupation and conversion in the long run seem elusive.
In addition, Stone fails to create a believably "great" Alexander: There is little said to establish his genius beyond his famous "Conquer your fear, and I promise you'll conquer death." Where he could be reputed great beyond all others, even "Alexander" Haig (just kidding), is in his war strategy, but Stone gives little insight. The battle scenes are a blur of rapid pans, ultra quick cuts, and swooping aerial shots too truncated to reveal a consummate strategist.
The almost 3 hours are not dull, the cinematography and sets are luscious, and Jolie a joy. It's just that I hoped to have a glimpse into genius, the way I experienced in "Ray" earlier this year. I ended understanding the petulant and provocative Colin Farrell, successful bad boy of cinema, much better than the eternally elusive Alexander. Maybe that's the answer--It's too difficult in art to capture the essence of a great man, much as Orson Welles told us in his "Citizen Kane," which is alluded to twice with Alexander's ring-dropping death scene. Stone's no Orson Welles, just a gifted director with a disappointing film.
John DeSando teaches film at Franklin University and co-hosts WCBE's "It's Movie Time," which can be heard streaming at www.wcbe.org Fridays at 3:01 pm and 8:01 pm. Contact him at JDeSando@Columbus.RR.com.