Alexander - Misunderstood hero
| Harry Knowles said it well in his review of Oliver Stone’s Alexander; “the critics are wrong, Alexander is great.” Okay, maybe ‘great’ is overstating it, but it is pretty damn good.
Alexander, like the best of Stone’s movies, is a film that its audience isn’t ready for. Like Natural Born Killers and JFK before it, Alexander makes its audience uncomfortable which probably explains the undeserved trashing that critics have dished out. Alexander doesn’t make its audience feel easy about anything and so most viewers will shift in their seats or giggle their way through the nearly three hour epic as a way of dealing with such a challenging film.
On the surface this film is a fairly traditional historical epic. However, Stone undermines the genre by inverting common expectations and making disjointed value judgements. He does this less predictably and provocatively than in his past work, therefore much of this will go over casual observers’ heads. Instead of being overtly subversive the film instead subtly ‘rubs the wrong way’ which will make some ask questions about historical and cultural assumptions but disappointingly will make most simply see this as bad film making.
Stone paints everything in his story as complicated. Characters are contradictory, complex, and inconsistent. There is a word for characters like this, ‘human’ but we are so used to seeing historical personas reduced to character types that we don’t know how to react to characters that are not simply good or evil but mix elements of both.
The only character who doesn’t get this treatment is Alexander’s love Hephaistion. The love these two men share is portrayed as the only true thing in the picture while Alexander’s heterosexual attachments are painted as violent, strategic and deliciously naughty. Stone makes the ‘radical’ choice of making Alex’s same sex love pure, fulfilling and ideal which will no doubt be equally upsetting to both queer advocates and Focus on the Family.
Unfortunately, the DVD version of the film cuts most of this out. In a very un-Oliver Stone-like move, his “director’s cut” actually panders to public pressure. Shame, shame Oliver. When did you become Ron Howard?
The movie is conflicted over the nature of colonialism as well. It is at once necessary, progressive, oppressive, personal and liberating. Again Stone seems to be trying to piss off the anti-globalization movement at the same time as the capitalist neo-imperialists. The message that rings loud and clear is that everything is so much more complicated that ideology allows, a position that isn’t popular on any side of any isle.
What Stone really is doing is trying to tell the story of a man who lived millennia ago and is really only myth and legend today. Still, he roots his story by focusing on the humanity of the legend. He and Colin Farrell do a great job of this while maintaining the operatic, over the top element required for the telling of a life like Alexander’s. At times this film is very powerful and moving. Other times it is edge of your seat exciting. Always, it is provoking and generally satisfying.
Many films get unfairly maligned in their own time before audiences come around. Movies as diverse as The Wizard of Oz and Fight Club were only recognised years later for the achievements that they are. While it may be popular to bash this film today, in a few years people will begin to see that Stone has made the first good film about Alexander the Great and one of the few good ‘sword and sandal’ epics of the past decade.
The original release is also available on DVD and if you want to see the better film, make sure you track it down. This supposed “director’s cut” is a shameful exercise in corporate whoring that I hope Stone can recover from.