Scott Hardie: “It ruled.”
Ouch! Opening-day reviews have been scathing for this desperate Oscar nominee-wannabee, with some critics even calling it the worst film of the year. (My favorite quote: The Boston Globe's Wesley Morris says it's "full of brilliant highlights, and they're all in Colin Farrell's hair.") I see their complaints, and yet... I got it. I was receiving the signal it was broadcasting. Maybe that means I'm dumb or unsophisticated, but perhaps it just means that I think like Oliver Stone thinks. I've been on his wavelength for years; "Platoon" and "Natural Born Killers" are two of my absolute favorite films, and "Any Given Sunday" and "Born on the Fourth of July" aren't far behind. It's not his typical spirit-of-youth vs. parental-wisdom conflict that appeals to me, and certainly not the whole noble-warrior ethic, just the way that he charges ahead into his films with absolute sincerity, because what he is trying to communicate is the most important thing in the world at that moment. Stone is one of the most intense of today's popular filmmakers, and he cares so passionately about his message that you either take it or leave it. There's no point in seeing "Alexander" unless you're prepared for Oliver Stone to communicate his meaning to you very urgently.
What is Stone's meaning? That Alexander, perhaps more than any other person in history, lived his life to the fullest. Today's kids are lucky not to move back in with their parents after they finish state college, but here was a man who decided before puberty to conquer every land he knew and keep going, who saw no reason to stop when he ran off the map and ran out of roads. Forsaking his father's throne, he conquered and built his own empire, and conquered still more. The greatness of Alexander the historical figure is inarguable, but Stone is a stone-cold liberal, and can't resist portraying him as a benevolent (and beloved) ruler who is done in by cultural isolationists who want their society to stay the way it is. Stone said in an interview that Alexander would have gone after Osama bin Laden, and he's on to something: After putting that murderer's head on a pole, Alexander would have routed the leaders of Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan, turned them into the 51st through 54th states, made their former rulers the governors, and adopted their cultural norms into the American mainstream. Alexander's approach to cross-cultural empire-building would be completely unthinkable in A.D. 2004; it wasn't so long ago that we slaughtered the Native Americans instead of embracing them when we took their land, and yet our modern sensibilities require us to rebuild at great expense our destroyed Iraq instead of claiming it as our own. Whether Alexander's world would be better than Bush's I do not consider important (there I differ with Stone), what matters is how clearly the film delineates the values that made this legendary figure the great leader he was.
It's not a perfect film by any measure, and the critics are right to make their many complaints. For one, it breaks the mood with typical Stone-isms, such as the conspiracy theory about Alexander's "real" cause of death and the extended red saturation of the picture after Alexander's serious wounding in India. The film is obvious with its symbolism, and severely screws up the portrayal of Alexander's sexuality. (See how lustfully he regards Roxane and how solemnly he regards Hephaistion? Stone got it backwards.) It's far too long, with an endless closing monologue that may be the first time you'll ever wish Anthony Hopkins would stop talking. Its dialogue is atrocious and its lead actor often inadequate. And yet, despite these flaws and more, the film is never, ever phony. Whether it started with a flawed vision or not, it is true to that vision in every frame. This is a genuine red-blooded film, un-self-conscious and unafraid. Its flaws cannot be ignored, but seen from just the right angle, it has its own kind of brilliance.