Thursday, October 22, 2015

The Films of Oliver Stone: Alexander (2004)

Alexander (2004)
Directed by: Oliver Stone.
Written by: Oliver Stone and Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis.
Starring: Colin Farrell (Alexander), Angelina Jolie (Olympias), Val Kilmer (Philip), Anthony Hopkins (Old Ptolemy), Jared Leto (Hephaistion), Rosario Dawson (Roxana), Christopher Plummer (Aristotle), Elliot Cowan (Ptolemy), Gary Stretch (Cleitus), John Kavanagh (Parmenion), Nick Dunning (Attalus), Marie Meyer (Eurydice), Joseph Morgan (Philotas), Ian Beattie (Antigonus), Jonathan Rhys Meyers (Cassander), Denis Conway (Nearchus), Neil Jackson (Perdiccas),  Garrett Lombard (Leonnatus), Chris Aberdein (Polyperchon), Bin Bunluerit (King Porus), Rory McCann (Crateros), Raz Degan (Darius III), Francisco Bosch (Bagoas), Annelise Hesme (Stateira), Toby Kebbell (Pausanius).

No one can doubt Oliver Stone’s passion for Alexander (2004) – a film he labored over for years to get made, and has been laboring over ever since to try and get right. There are now four different versions of Stone’s epic about Alexander the Great – the 175 minute theatrical version, that was greeted to bad reviews and worse box office in 2004, the 167 minute “Director’s Cut” – that deleted some footage, added back other footage and restricted the film for DVD release in 2005, the 214 minute “Final Cut” released on DVD in 2007, which added back a lot of footage, and was meant as a whole, epic roadshow cut like the films Stone loved as a kid, and finally the “Ultimate Cut”, which 206 minutes long, and played at a film festival in 2012 before coming to DVD back in 2014. (For the record, for this viewing, I watched the 214 Final Cut – I would have watched The Ultimate Cut, but as far as I can tell, it is not commercially available in Canada – the great Bay Street Video does not have it, iTunes didn’t have it, and on, you can order it, but it lists it as an “Import” – which isn’t true of Stone’s passion therefore cannot possibly be questioned. The results, however, can be. I hadn’t seen Alexander since opening day back in 2004 when I watched the theatrical version, admired Stone’s audacity and ambition, while not much liking the end result. Over the years, I had heard from various people I should check out one version or another of Stone’s film – that he had indeed made the film better with his continuous tinkering with it. When I started this project to go back and re-watch all of Stone’s films, Alexander was the film that filled me with the most anticipation, and dread. Maybe there really was a great film somewhere within all the footage Stone shot – that he finally came up with – then again, maybe a longer version of the film would simply amplify all that was wrong with the film in the first place. The end result ending up splitting the difference for me – it is better than the theatrical cut, as it does fix much of the frustrating structural issues with the film, but it sure as hell isn’t very good, and at three and half hours was mainly a chore to sit through. It is the type of grand folly of a film that only someone as talented as Stone can make. There are those who will claim it’s some sort of masterwork – perhaps they are the same crazy people who will tell you that Michael Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate isn’t an incoherent mess. They would be wrong.

In the film, Alexander the Great is played by Colin Farrell – complete with an Irish accent, that many of the supporting cast also try to adopt supposedly for consistency, which was a mistake since everyone now just sounds silly – the great conqueror who expands Macedonia’s Empire more than anyone thought possible. In the movie’s version of events, he basically does this because he has a massive Oedipus conflict. His well respected father, Phillip (Val Kilmer), was loved by his men, but became a drunken and abusive lout. His mother, Olympia (Angelina Jolie), donning a bizarre Russian accent, hates her husband and drives her son to do bigger and better things. When the movie came out, many read the film as an allegory for George W. Bush – a man driven to conquer a land that didn’t want to be conquered in an effort to get out of the shadow of his highly successful father. This is certainly Stone’s vision of W. – as his 2008 film about him would show – but if that is the case with Alexander, than the allegory is confused at best, and incoherent at worst. The movie seems to be of two minds about Alexander – at times admiring his audacity and vision, and at times seeing him as a madman. Had Stone found a compelling way to reconcile these two halves of Alexander, he may have been onto something – a complex vision of the man, but he doesn’t (making things more confusing, the movie is actually being told from a specific point-of-view – that of Ptolmey (an aging Anthony Hopkins) – who when we hear him speak, basically does so in glowing terms about Alexander, which isn’t the portrait we get in the movie. Again – had Stone found an interesting way of showing this contradiction – like Terrence Malick does in films like Badlands and Days of Heaven, where he plays memory off of reality by contrasting the narration with the visuals – he could have had something? But again, he doesn’t.

A major part of the problem with the movie is the casting of Farrell in the central role. Farrell has gone on to deliver quite a few fine performances in the decade since Alexander, but here he has no idea what he’s doing. He isn’t helped by a screenplay that often requires him to deliver long, dull speeches, and star longingly at Jared Leto’s Hephaistion, who he is in love with. Farrell basically plays Alexander like an emo teenager – always seemingly on the verge of tears. It leaves a rather large whole at the center of the film that cannot be filled.
Stone makes other missteps along the way as well. He doesn’t sidestep Alexander’s homosexuality in the film – it is clear that he and Hephasistion are in love – but Stone does seem uncomfortable with it. The most sexual characters in the movie are undeniably Angelina Jolie’s Olympias and Rosario Dawson’s Roxanna, Alexander’s first wife – both of whom seem to want to devoir Alexander in every conceivable way. By contrast, Leto sits around looking like a lost puppy dog.

It must be said though that the battle scenes in the movie are generally quite good – bloody, visceral and entertaining – even if Stone doesn’t quite seem to be able to convey everything visually at all times, providing captions to tell us what side the various armies are on at any given time. Like Any Given Sunday, there is a lot of talk about strategy, that doesn’t quite translate to the actual “on field” battles, which Stone wants to make violent and bloody. They work – but pretty much only in isolation to everything around them.

I admire Stone for making Alexander in the first place, and admire him more for being so stubborn that he refuses to let it go until he has delivered the best possible version he could. That takes commitment – the kind of commitment that so few directors are capable of. However, now having seen two versions of the movie, I have to say that I don’t think any amount of editing is going to save this one. It is an audacious failure – but still very much a failure.

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