With Alexander (Warner Bros.), Oliver Stone has done what I never thought possible: He has made me feel pity for him. The movie is a sprawling mess, a lox, a three-hour non-starter. But it’s not an affront, like Stone’s other bombastic, amphetamine-paced essays in megalomania. This one, large-scaled as it is, seems too puny and fragmented for its mighty subject; it feels as if Stone, for the first time in his career, simply ran out of hot air.
Please understand the source of my vitriol: I consider Stone’s Natural Born Killers to be, hands down, the worst movie ever made—and not the worst in the manner of Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space. I mean the worst in its combination of aesthetic and moral ugliness, in the way it bombards you into accepting the idea that a pair of serial mass murderers could be enlightened hipsters. (The original script, by Quentin Tarantino, was a heavy-handed but amusing satire of sensationalistic media; by the time Stone had gotten through with it, the serial killers had evolved into existential heroes.)
Now, Stone attempts to tell the story of another mass murderer/existential hero, Alexander the Great (played by Colin Farrell), the young Macedonian king who, in 323 B.C., swept through Greece and then the Persian Empire—what is now Egypt, Syria, Iran, and Iraq—and then, more foolishly, into India: a dozen years of conquests that at the very least touched the lives of more people on the planet than any military leader before him (even if only to end them).
How does Stone feel about this titanic force of history? Slightly ambivalent, but, on the whole, pretty darn positive. Yes, there are all those natives and disloyalists he massacred—but isn’t that a small price to pay for greatness? And if his men didn’t always see the logic of his dream to spread Hellenic civilization to people who didn’t care to have it, well, maybe that’s because they weren’t fellow eagles: They couldn’t soar above nation-state borders and see them as illusory, to be transcended by his own titanic will. Which is not to say that Alexander wasn’t, from time to time, a force for good. He was a pretty empathetic despot when he stayed put, and he certainly educated people in the omnipresent threat of conquering armies.
I could continue in this on-the-one-hand/on-the-other vein for the length of Alexander, but the bottom line is that there is no bottom line: Concluding that Alexander’s failures were more estimable than other men’s successes, this is an unusually straddling sort of effort for Stone. Is it possible that his loathing for what he regards as doomed U.S. imperialism in present-day Persia has muffled his reliably fascist storytelling instincts? He seems to have forgotten how to put an audience on the rack.
The picture is narrated by Anthony Hopkins as the aged general Ptolemy: He’s dictating his memoirs for posterity, and he can’t quite get a handle on his protagonist. Neither, for that matter, can Stone and his co-screenwriters, Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogris. Apart from a tendency to view Macedonians and Greeks as one people, the film is more or less historically accurate—aided and abetted by the Oxford scholar Robin Lane Fox, who has no doubt disgraced himself among his colleagues by penning a “making of” book. Fox’s advice clearly wasn’t dramaturgical: There’s a huge narrative leap from the young Alexander having a public spat with his drunken, one-eyed father, Philip (Val Kilmer), to Alexander leading 40,000 men against 250,000 Persians at the Battle of Gaugamela. Late in the movie, Stone doubles back and fills in some of the gaps (with a soupçon of Freud, or at least, Oedipus), but by then the dire storytelling, tin-eared dialogue, and swollen running time have dulled our curiosity.
Much is made of Alexander’s tactical genius in overcoming long odds, but Stone has no similar gift. Despite the eagle’s-eye view of battle—and I mean, folks, the literal eagle’s-eye view, owing to Alexander’s spiritual bond with a ubiquitous bird of prey—it’s impossible to tell where one army is in relation to another, or just how Alexander gets the best of his impassive Persian counterpart. Alexander is packed with hundreds of thousands of warriors wielding long spears, with kinetic body smashings and face smushings, with intricately choreographed mano-a-mano stabbings and furious horse-, camel-, and elephant-back riding, but the editors must have had a stroke trying to make it all flow together.
Listening to Alexander appeal to his exhausted, irritable army to continue on to the heart of Asia instead of heading back to Babylon or Macedonia, you find yourself fearing not for his men, but for Colin Farrell’s vocal cords, which sound as if they’re being shredded to a powder. Farrell had a stylish bully-boy presence in Daredevil and in a terrific Irish ensemble movie called Intermission. At his best, he’s shrewdly small-scale. You can imagine him firing up the lads at the pub before he gets too stuporous. But all the armies of the Western world? He doesn’t begin to have the stature—or the lung power. And those pouffy blond locks don’t help. Quite a bit has been written about Stone’s inclusion of Alexander’s (historically accurate) bisexuality. The point seems to be that Alexander knew no boundaries—that his sexuality was as fluid as his notion of geographical borders. But it’s tame stuff: moist looks traded with a eunuch and with Jared Leto—an actor with bright blue eyes who’s too self-intoxicated to be much of an erotic force.
Despite a role that has no dramatic arc (Philip rejects and embraces Alexander according to the demands of the plot), Kilmer is big and fearless enough to bluster through in entertaining style. But the only truly heroic presence in the picture is Angelina Jolie, improbably but delightfully cast as Alexander’s imperious mother, Olympias. Jolie slits her eyes and toys with her lines, controlling the space without raising her voice. I don’t care how nuts she is, Jolie is the real deal: a gorgeous, epic-scaled actress who can transform herself from the inside out. She could eat Colin Farrell for breakfast and pick her teeth with Jared Leto. Forget Alexander: The film is a pedestal to Angelina the great.
Greek to Me: Many readers (some of them Greek, some classics scholars) dispute the line above that Alexander muddles Macedonians with Greeks, pointing out that Hellenic culture and myth—both of which were regularly invoked by Alexander—are Greek and not Macedonian legacies. I admit that I was swayed by a heated letter (sent to many critics, evidently) from an indignant Macedonian. I shall leave Greeks (who have suggested I’ve committed a blood libel), Macedonians, scholars, and other interested parties to fight it out in the Fray.