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Alexander the so-so
Oliver Stone loses his way in the Middle East

Here’s the story pitch: a Western head of state, son of a powerful ruler father and a ruthless and ambitious mother, invades a Middle Eastern nation. He does so in part to avenge his father, but also, he says, to liberate the locals from their tyrannical leader. Having won a surprisingly quick victory, he marches triumphantly into the capital, but the foreign leader escapes to the mountains and eludes capture. Trying to stamp out all remaining pockets of opposition, the Westerner finds himself stuck in the region for years fighting tribal guerrillas. Meanwhile, his push to liberate other countries expands eastward. His battle-weary soldiers, who haven’t seen home in years, begin to rebel. Finally, he decides to declare victory and return home, but anarchy fills the power vacuum he leaves behind. Historians argue over whether he was truly a liberator or one of the bloodiest imperialists the world has seen.

Oliver Stone has been trying for 15 years to make a bio-pic about Alexander the Great, but the finished film reads uncannily like a cautionary allegory of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Stone may not have meant for the parallels to be so explicit; maybe he’s unconsciously channeling the zeitgeist, or maybe it’s just that no one in the Bush administration is enough of a scholar of ancient history to avoid repeating it 2300 years later. Pondering such paradoxes is a good way to pass the time during Alexander, a meandering, three-hour epic that might otherwise have you fidgeting in your seat.

How did Alexander manage to conquer most of the known world before he was 30? Personality, Stone suggests. His Alexander charms snakes, horses, women, and, ultimately, armies. As played by a blond-wigged Colin Farrell, he radiates a Clinton-esque charisma — so much charisma, in fact, that almost everyone else in the cast seems to be emulating his Irish accent. Alexander was also groomed for success (and, if he were a contemporary man, years of psychotherapy) by his parents: the brutish, drunken, one-eyed warrior king Philip (a scene-stealing Val Kilmer) and the scheming, witchy, smothering Olympias (Angelina Jolie, the only actor in the film who attempts a Greek accent). Raised on the Greek myths, he lives out the stories of Prometheus (punished for bringing light to humanity), Achilles (the invulnerable hero storming Asia, with his male lover at his side), Herakles (strong and unconquerable, except by treachery), and Oedipus (marrying a woman, Rosario Dawson’s Roxane, who is a virtual clone of Jolie’s Olympias).

Irrelevant, it would seem, was Alexander’s bisexuality, a trait that, the movie suggests, the Greeks regarded as a rite of passage that young men eventually outgrew. Not Alexander, though, who remains closer to no one than to boyhood wrestling partner Hephaistion (Jared Leto, in his Jordan Catalano mode). That’s clear even though Stone shoots an explicit sex scene with Alexander and Roxane while limiting Alexander and Hephaistion to hugs and longing glances. Such restraint mars Alexander, which is an uncharacteristically timid and tentative piece of filmmaking for Stone. For once, he doesn’t dazzle with technique but keeps his usual acid-trip editing and camera work to a minimum. Although there are a number of bravura set pieces, particularly the two big battle scenes, they seem disconnected because of the film’s lack of structure. The story’s oddly placed flashbacks and abrupt jumps back and forth over years’ worth of events give the impression that Stone is unsure of where he wants the tale to go or what point he wants to make. Whoever thought viewers would long for the old days when Stone would hit them over the head? At least there was no mistaking his intentions, no avoiding being swept up in his narrative drive. "The dreamers exhaust us," says Alexander’s colleague Ptolemy (a hammy Anthony Hopkins), the story’s narrator. It seems they exhaust themselves, too.

Issue Date: November 26 - December 2, 2004
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