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Alexander the Tame

 

Alexander

Oliver Stone, USA, 2004

Rating: 3.0

 

 

Posted: November 26, 2004

By Laurence Station

Oliver Stone is known as a bold, often contentious director. Whether supporting a particular view of the Kennedy assassination (JFK) or sparking debate over the media's role in glorifying violence (Natural Born Killers), Stone has built a career around provocation and controversy. The surprising thing about his take on Alexander the Great, then, is how by-the-numbers rote it is. Stone takes few chances with material just begging for literary invention. His Alexander, save for a few quibbling details done in the service of dramatic expediency, rattles along in mostly chronological, factually accepted order, from the Macedonian ruler's birth in 323 B.C. to his less-than-glorious death in Babylon. We get the facts, but with Stone -- a marvelously committed speculator -- no imaginative fill-in-the-blank scenarios that would have added immensely to the film's entertainment value.

Entertainment, after all, is the key word here. Even the History Channel understands how important it is to not only enlighten an audience but dazzle them as well. And Alexander's tale simply begs for grand theatricality, a vision that articulates the life of a man who died young enough to become a myth, never old and weakened but ever-virile and at the height of his powers. And that's what's so baffling about Stone's conservative approach here. With JFK, the director was dealing with events that occurred in the bulk of his audiences' lifetimes. But that hardly stopped him from wholeheartedly backing one of the least plausible of the innumerable conspiracy theories regarding President Kennedy's assassination. Regardless of which side of the argument a viewer fell upon, Stone has to be admired for going all the way with his material. JFK, although confounding in its logic, is nonetheless an extremely entertaining yarn.

With Alexander, Stone had the benefit of more than two thousand years of historical slack to play with. Instead, he tethers himself to the shortest of ropes. Alexander's early years establish the dominant figures in his life: Non-pure blood Macedonian Olympias (Angelina Jolie), his mother; his one-eyed gruff father, King Philip (Val Kilmer); and childhood wrestling buddy and unequivocal love of his life, Hephaistion (Jared Leto). Olympias is convinced Alexander was fathered by Zeus (in snake form) and thus wants only the best for her divinely sired child. Philip is distrustful of Olympias; he thinks she's a witch plotting behind his back, and so he's hardly ready to anoint Alexander as his heir.

Stone then does a major chronological jump (with the gaps filled in by Anthony Hopkins' Ptolemy, speaking decades after Alexander's life and acting as our "tell don't show" guide), and we're on the dusty fields of Gaugamela in Persia. Alexander (a dedicated though wildly uneven Colin Farrell) readies his troops for battle against Darius, King of Persia. The Persians are routed, Darius flees, and Alexander triumphantly enters Babylon. Of course, Alexander desires to reach the murkily defined "end of the world," and presses his army on to India, where his conquering reach finally exceeds his ambitious grasp.

From a narrative standpoint, Alexander simply fails to sustain momentum. The two major battles Stone focuses on, the large-scale Gaugamela and the more intimately staged Battle at the Hydaspes, in India, are intense, bloody, jarring encounters, but the majority of the film is spent watching the Macedonians trudge from one exotic locale to the next, with Alexander's men growing restless and wanting to return home. There's no great dramatic arc, and Stone doesn't bother contriving one. Thus, we follow a strict chronological thread (save for an oddly placed flashback to Philip's murder), which results in flat inaction interspersed with dramatic spikes. And that lumbering sense of history taking its inevitable course simply doesn't work over a grueling three-hour stretch.

Stone shows atypical restraint when it comes to revealing the full picture of Alexander's sexuality, as well. That men slept together was no great or dark secret in the ancient world of Alexander's time. But Stone refuses to show Alexander and his great love, Hephaistion, consummating their feelings for each other. Rather, we get Ptolemy offering cheekily famous quotes like "Alexander was only defeated once, and that was by Hephaestion's thighs," after the two boys wrestle. Throughout, Farrell and Leto make goo-goo eyes at one another and endlessly profess their love, but it's all safely and platonically (i.e., vertically) handled. Of course, Stone has no problem showing Alexander's animalistically vigorous wedding night with his Asiatic bride, Roxane (Rosario Dawson), whose voluptuous curves are unblinkingly lingered upon as the pair act out antiquity's version of the mating scene from Duran Duran's "Hungry Like the Wolf" video. Such gender-biased hypocrisy in the name of inoffensively safe box office is a glaring example of Stone's creative emasculation throughout the film.

Alexander makes for a fairly accurate take on the established facts of the Macedonian king's overweening exploits. Stone's vision of Alexander as a ruthlessly conquering but inclusive multi-culturalist shines through (and how PC is that?). But any deeper insight into the legendary man has been compromised and watered down to the point of tepid inconsequentiality. As a striking artistic achievement, or even campy popcorn fare, Alexander falls well short of greatness.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A masterpiece
 4.0-4.9: Exceptional

 3.0-3.9: Solid fare

 2.0-2.9: The mediocrities...
 1.1-1.9: Poor
 0.0-1.0: Utter dreck
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