Photo by Jaap Buitendijk
In life, Alexander the Great is said to have slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad tucked beneath his pillow, a dagger beside it. Early on in Oliver Stone’s new film biography, there is a scene in which the adolescent Alexander accompanies his father, Philip of Macedonia (Val Kilmer, essaying a regal sense of exhaustion), into a darkened cave decorated with images inspired by Greek mythology. On one wall loom proud Achilles and mighty Prometheus, on another King Oedipus. The point being that the great (and flawed) men of one generation can’t help comparing themselves to — and attempting to surpass — their predecessors. Which, for the men of Alexander’s time, meant vying for a place in history with those who had been touched by the gods themselves.
In other words, be careful what you wish for.
It’s familiar territory for Stone, much of whose career has been spent making cinematic cave paintings about men of his own era who aspired to godhead, from Jim Morrison and Richard Nixon to megalomaniacal 1980s stockbrokers and the testosterone-inflated supermen of the National Football League. So it comes as little surprise to learn that Stone has been trying to mount a film about Alexander the Great since long before he afforded the warrior king a cameo appearance in 1991’s The Doors. Thirteen years, $150 million and one contentious, headline-grabbing production later, Alexander seems to have defeated its maker in a way that Alexander himself never was on the battlefield. In tracing the young conqueror’s life from infancy to his death (from typhoid or malarial fever) four months shy of his 33rd birthday, Stone is unfailingly serious in his approach, adhering scrupulously to historical fact and immersing himself in the political landscape of the time (356–323 B.C.). Yet at the end of the day — or, at least, of the film’s three hours — he has given us an Alexander entirely, and fatally, lacking in greatness, a hollow triumph of intellect over feeling. What surprises most is how little of Stone’s own raging, rambunctious ambition has made it onto the screen. For surely, if Stone were destined to botch Alexander, he could at least be relied upon to do so in a gaudy, grandiloquent fashion reminiscent of the more outré passages in Natural Born Killers and Nixon. (And how difficult could such a feat have been, once Stone had cast two of Alexander’s principal roles with those nonpareil Tinseltown eccentrics, Kilmer and Angelina Jolie?) What Stone has delivered instead is no folie de grandeur, but rather the last thing one would have expected from him: an honorable failure.
Not that Alexander lacks interest. Working from his own screenplay (co-written by Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, with generous input from historian Robin Lane Fox), Stone is hardly unaware of the contemporary resonances of a story in which a power-crazed despot employs rhetoric about uniting the world as a means by which to conquer it. (To drive the point home, Stone has even depicted Alexander’s chief antagonist, the Persian king Darius, with a long, tan face and straggly beard that seem to have been lifted from the bin Laden gene pool.) As has already been widely reported, Stone has also approached Alexander’s famed bisexuality with an openness and lack of sensationalism that, while not exactly radical by the standards of, say, Derek Jarman’s Sebastiane, is certainly the closest a major-studio feature has come to advocating for gays in the military. And though he lacks the larger-than-life force of personality that the role demands, Colin Farrell gives of himself fully to Alexander, softening his voice and his eyes in a way that evokes the boy striving to become a man. Meanwhile, wreathed in live snakes that are sure to be the envy of most men in the audience, Jolie embodies Alexander’s domineering mother, Olympias, with a hissing intensity that is by far the liveliest thing in the movie. You don’t doubt for a second that she swallows her prey whole.
For almost as long as there have been recorded histories of Alexander the Great, historians have struggled to reckon their subject’s evident magnanimity with his equally apparent bloodlust. Hence, one of Alexander’s earliest chroniclers, the 1st century A.D. biographer Plutarch, allowed his own Hellenistic pride to lead him to manufacture defenses for what would today be considered among Alexander’s most indefensible actions. But for all his diligent research and analysis, Stone ultimately seems not just unresolved in his feelings about Alexander, but downright noncommittal. That’s not to say that Stone should be forced to choose between Alexander the lover-dreamer and Alexander the brute — indeed, it makes for a more interesting film that he doesn’t. Rather, it’s to say that while Stone tells us a great many things about who Alexander was and what he accomplished, he does so largely from the outside in, leaving us with precious little sense of the inner forces, demonic or otherwise, that drove Alexander to conquer most of the known world by the age of 25. That wonderful early scene in the cave notwithstanding, Alexander scarcely brings us closer to its subject than do the marbleized busts one finds in museum exhibitions.
Of course, the same could easily be said of the treatment Ray and Finding Neverland afford their subjects, and while Alexander is doubtless the best of the three, it’s also the one that has the highest standard to live up to — Stone’s own. In his earlier biopics, particularly JFK and Nixon, Stone employed multiple film stocks and some dazzling feats of picture and sound editing to achieve a remarkable sense of multiple, simultaneously occurring realities — the world as viewed by his subject, and his subject as viewed by the world around him. And he populated the edges of those stories with armies of supporting characters — some based on real people, others freely invented — so vivid that they frequently threatened to usurp the very figures they were supposedly supporting. (Think Tommy Lee Jones in JFK or Bob Hoskins in Nixon.) Those movies were compulsively watchable even, or especially, when the ideas they were espousing were at their looniest. By comparison, Alexander — in its imagery and its ideology — doesn’t just feel restrained, it feels anesthetized. It’s the first of Stone’s films that craves respectability, and the only one that makes you wish Baz Luhrmann had directed it instead.
Respectable as it may be, Alexander is also a thudding bore, when what it should have been is an operatic testament to unchecked ambition — Stone’s Aguirre, or his Fitzcarraldo. In a particularly perverse gesture, the first battle scene doesn’t come until nearly one-third of the way through the picture, when an outnumbered Alexander brazenly descends on Darius at Guagamela. And while, as battle scenes go, this is a pretty good one, with a potent sense of real human bone and sinew that was missing from the big set pieces of Troy, it’s scarcely adequate compensation for soldiering through the rest of Alexander. The borderline-incestuous mother love between Alexander and Olympias; the tender comradeship between Alexander and his soul mate Hephaistion (well-played by an eye-shadowy Jared Leto); the strategic marriage of Alexander to his barbarian wife, Roxane (Rosario Dawson) — Stone gets to the marrow of none of these. Only very late in the film’s third hour, during an elaborate (and admittedly spectacular) re-creation of Alexander’s battle against the pachyderm-led forces of the Indian king Porus, does Stone seem to snap awake from his slumber to assert his authorship of the film. After a breathtaking succession of towering spears being crushed like toothpicks and human bodies flung about by elephant tusks, we arrive at that majestic shot of Alexander’s horse, Bucephalus, rearing on its hind legs to confront a similarly positioned elephant. When Alexander is wounded by an arrow piercing his armor, the images onscreen go red, as though the film stock had been developed in a solution of Alexander’s own blood. And so Alexander sparks to life mere screen minutes before its eponymous hero swallows his last breath.
ALEXANDER | Directed by OLIVER STONE | Written by STONE, CHRISTOPHER KYLE and LAETA KALOGRIDIS | Produced by THOMAS SCHÜHLY, JON KILIK, IAIN SMITH and MORITZ BORMAN | Released by Warner Bros. | Citywide