Oliver Stone is no stranger to historical films. In fact Stone has made some of the finest biographical films ever put on screen, though he is reported to play fast and loose with facts. Twice he has won the Academy Award for best director, a feat repeated with the Directors Guild of America, and been nominated for one other.|
Through the eighties and nineties, Stone directed Born on the Fourth of July (1989) and Nixon (1995), both excellent biographies about, respectively, war veteran Ron Kovic, portrayed quite brilliantly by Tom Cruise, and former President Richard Nixon, portrayed with startling realism by Anthony Hopkins. Stone’s career exploded with his winning an Academy Award for writing the screenplay to Midnight Express (1978) adapted from the book of the same name about Billy Hayes experiences in a Turkish prison after being arrested for possession of hashish. Stone brought his own life to the screen in Platoon (1986), a seething study of VietNam that ended the reign of VietNam as a comic book as seen in Rambo: First Blood Part II (1985), and won Stone an Academy Award for best director. He merged facts with speculation in JFK (1991) drawing the wrath of many Americans, though in fairness, he opened the eyes of just as many.
Alexander marks his first foray into ancient history, and while his skill as a filmmaker is undeniable, the film bogs down badly and ends up being a noble failure. Historians from around the world are hailing the picture as accurate, realistic and honest, while others ask “how would they know?”. At the end of the day it is still just a movie, and though it has moments of brilliance, is a disappointment on many levels.
Alexander conquered the known world before his death at the age of 32. He was a military genius, but more importantly, a brilliant leader of men. They believed in him, followed him, killed for him and in many cases, died for him. He led his army against the massive Persian army and defeated them moving through the known world conquering civilization after civilization. Known to be bi-sexual, he took lovers from either sex, something not uncommon in this time, and was said to be a tender lover, something ironic because he was such a violent warrior.
The film explores Alexander’s life, but sadly is like so many Hollywood biographies in that what comes across is a greatest hits style film, focusing on key elements of his life. Indeed, no film, no matter how long can encompass a man’s entire life, however Stone’s Nixon (1995) captured the essence of the fallen President better than anything written on Nixon. Why does Alexander fail?
Part of the trouble is the casting.
As fine an actor as Colin Farrell is, he lacks the emotional depth to be a God which is what Alexander was said to be. Farrell is far too aware of the role he is playing and does not give himself over to the part, which is required of an actor. There is never a moment when he owns the role as Hopkins did in Nixon (1995) never a moment when we say, ‘I know that man”. Some of this is clearly not his fault as the screenplay is rather weak, and key characters are not well developed. There are moments when Alexnader seems to be a whiny wimp and we wonder how this man could lead vast armies into certain death?
The supporting cast is equally troubling, though Val Kilmer is quite good as Alexander’s violent father. Angelina Jolie is wasted as his mother, and Anthony Hopkins shows up for reasons known only to Stone.
Alexander looks impressive, with stunning cinematography and spectacular battle sequences. To Stone’s credit he manages to plunge the audience into the mindset of the time by creating an accurate vision of the world that this was. Where he fails is where he has never failed before, in the creation of characters we believe. He seemed to go for scope and size rather than the intimacy of the story, and that very aspect of the film is what is required. How can we care about Alexander if we do not know him?
Coming out of the film I knew nothing more about the character than going in, and that to me, is a major let down.
One of the year’s biggest disappointments.