The major problem with biopics is the issue of how much of a human lifetime can be realistically shoehorned into a movie before the viewing experience becomes a grueling ordeal. When the protagonist also happens to be a legendary figure of ages past, such as Alexander the Great, it also becomes all too easy for the project to fall into the abyss of the tiring historical epic. As the opening titles appeared onscreen, I prepared myself for the very real possibility that Oliver Stone’s “Alexander” could unravel into nearly three hours of total cinematic catastrophe.
The film covers the vast majority of Alexander’s life as the youngest and mightiest nation-conqueror in the annals of ancient history, a tall order even for the director who brought us “JFK.” We catch glimpses of the formative experiences of his childhood, which include loincloth-clad wrestling matches, a series of subtly threatening exchanges with his mother (Angelina Jolie, who isn’t as miscast as it may seem) Queen Olympias and a series of unsubtly threatening exchanges with his father, Philip of Macedon (Val Kilmer, in a performance reminiscent of his less-restrained moments as Jim Morrison). Filled with foreshadowing narration, the film’s voiceovers are provided by the aged Ptolem (Sir Anthony Hopkins), filling in the screenplay’s gaps.
The movie skips ahead, though an oddly placed flashback brings us back briefly, as Ptolemy informs us that Philip is killed and thus Alexander must ascend to the throne. At this point, the title role is taken over by foul-mouthed teen heartthrob Colin Farrell, whose bleach blonde hair grows longer and longer throughout the movie to indicate both the passage of years and the increased haggardness of a man who, no matter how many lands he overtakes, just can’t get enough. Though he had much of the known world in his grasp by an age when most of us are grappling with apartment damage deposits, “Alexander” paints a portrait of a man forever thirsting for more.
While few would doubt the scope of Alexander’s achievements – he was “great,” after all – the movie seems to think that simply recounting them makes for a compelling narrative. Rather than a story, “Alexander” feels like a “best of” reel in the career of a particularly successful military commander whose time was cut short just as he realized his own limitations. Scenes of specific emotional dramas are strung together with grand-scale battles; the former seemingly meant to impress upon us what a complex individual Alexander was, the latter simply seeking to impress us.
Still, they do impress. The movie’s depictions of war are staggering in their scale, made all the more impressive by the apparent lack of computer-generated effects. The real Alexander had countless thousands of men – living, not virtual – at his command, and so does the film version. This attention to detail holds throughout most visual aspects of “Alexander.” Seeing all of the beautifully ornate period sets, I’m positive nobody embezzled away so much as a penny of the reported $150 million cost of production.
Nevertheless, in spite of – or perhaps because of – its 173-minute running time, the movie fails to cohere to any specific angle, preferring instead to flail away in several half-baked directions. The factor most detrimental to its impact is Farrell’s “Alexander,” who never quite displays a personality befitting the power madness required to forcibly build a two million square mile empire. Rather than drive, he shows confusion, most notably in something of a subplot involving his best friend and – if I’m reading the aggressively vague bush-beating correctly – male lover, Hephaistion (Jared Leto, in heavy eyeliner). Because, on this subject, the screenplay breaks the cardinal rule of “show, don’t tell” – and we’re barely even told – the controversy about the film’s depiction of Alexander’s bisexuality seems unwarranted.
There’s no question that “Alexander” is a vast, Oliver Stonian project, and also no question that it looks fantastic, for the most part. However, the fact that it makes no intriguing points to speak of is certainly not helped by its sheer length, nor by its tendency to remind us at every turn that we are watching an epic. With every booming orchestral swell, every use of crummy post-production slow motion and every wide angle shot of whatever kingdom is to be overthrown next, one can’t help but wonder: “Yeah, but what else have you got?”