According to Virgil in The Aeneid, fortune favors the bold, but a more accurate statement might be that the bold are asking for it. Oliver Stone's gonzo stab at telling the epic story of Alexander the Great illustrates the vulnerability of the man at the top of the social food chain, whether it be the the Macedonian conqueror of the 4th Century B.C.E. or the Hollywood general laying claim to Alexander's life story.
Alexander isn't very user-friendly. Writer-director Stone (with co-writers Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis faces the unenviable task of conflating Alexander's short but eventful life--with its complicated contexts of family, military strategy, and bisexual love affairs--into a coherent three-hour narrative. Surprisingly, Stone chooses not to go in the essentially literalist direction of his Nixon biopic, but paints in broader strokes to illustrate the nature and stresses of greatness.
Alexander, played by Colin Farrell, remains an exotic figure, formed by psychological impulses which are mostly (and gladly) unrelatable, and cultural influences which predate our worldview by thousands of years. Few are as brave and bold as Alexander the Great, so Stone's task is not so much to make him ordinary enough to be grasped (though Stone approaches this in Alexander's universal fretfulness over career and relationships) as it is to help us to regard him from a variety of angles.
The story is narrated by Ptolemy (defined with razor-sharp acuity by the seemingly effortless Anthony Hopkins); Alexander's aged contemporary both celebrates the man as great and cuts him down to human size. In flashback, we meet Alexander as a child (Jessie Kamm, then Connor Paolo) under the the thumbs of his warring, sort-of parents—King Philip II of Macedon (Val Kilmer) and Olympias (Angelina Jolie)—and the tutelage of Aristotle (Christopher Plummer).
Jolie, rolling her "r"s like there's no tomorrow, makes a meal of Olympias, the vampy snake-charmer and purported sorceress who gives Philip as good as she gets. Never letting her husband forget that Alexander is bastard proof of his cuckoldry, Olympias whispers sweet everythings into Alexander's ear which fuel his insatiable drive for conquest. "Women are the only ones who know Dionysus," she tells her boy, after teaching him to hold the snake (if you know what I mean); later, she hisses, "Zeus is your father—act like it!".
Kilmer's raging, one-eyed Philip, meanwhile, insists that his son "beware of women" and guides the boy through a cave of Greek heroic icons which likewise represent Alexander's presumed destiny of greatness: Prometheus, Oedipus (uh oh), and the boy's beloved Achilles—an archetype not only of martial dominance but a model of homosexual virtue. From childhood, the bisexual Alexander shares escalating man-love with Hephaistion (Jared Leto), from the wrestling pit to the battlefield to the bed-chamber. Stone pulls this daring plot thread as taut as he can in a big-budget, wide-release studio-distributed film, which is to say lots of longing glances, declarations of love, and hugging. The overt sex scene is reserved for the feral wedding night of Alexander and second-wife Roxane (Rosario Dawson).
Out of narrative expediency (and, most likely, budget concerns for the $160-million-dollar picture), Stone stages only two battles, and both are vigorous. The former depicts the battle of Gaugamela, pitting something like 40,000 Macedonian troops against 250,000 Persian slave-warriors under the command of Darius III. Alexander fires up the troops but also leads the cavalry charge himself. The general's approach, though described in a strategic meeting and regarded from an eagle's eye view of troop movements, may feel a bit obscure to those looking to be taught the history; Stone operates from the position that the film will work best for those who can fill in the historical gaps so abruptly bridged by old Ptolemy's narration.
A second, climactic battle scene locates a climactic Indian clash in the lush jungle, where war-bred elephants rear up against Alexander and his trusty horse Bucaphelus in an orgiastic action tableau that briefly washes the film in loud fuschia. Stylistically, Stone goes whole-hog with elaborate production design, the trippiest title sequence of the year (multiple dissolving images--including the divine eagle--in a rippling sea of blue), and a grandiose, throwback electronic score by Greek composer Vangelis.
That style, a perhaps over-indulgent emphasis on philosophical and emotional navel-gazing, the barely unrestrained camp of Alexander's scenes with his mother and his lovers, and a lengthy running time will contribute to the film's inevitable popular demise and, worse, threatens to drown out Farrell. Though emotionally resonant and, at times, potently declamatory, Farrell's Alexander may not have enough opportunities to assert the magnetic leadership skills which get the often tremulous, always human conqueror and his army in and out of some fine messes.
Alexander's legacy as a uniter and a divider allows Stone (and his spokesperson Ptolemy) to celebrate Alexander for his undeniable greatness while also questioning imperalism through Stone's modern political filter; the ever-present eagle represents not only a godly fatalism but the largest modern empire, in which we live. Stone sympathizes with the man, whose greatness (and before-his-time realization that Hellenism was not exclusively great) isolated him from his people. "My mother believed me divine," says Alexander, "and my father weak. Which am I, Hephaistion—divine or weak?" That question and Ptolemy's answer forty years after Alexander's death ("All men reach and fall, reach and fall") penetrates the complexity of Alexander and Stone's treatment. Alexander is unavoidably a problematic epic, but it has integrity and deserves an audience willing to engage in Stone's dialogue. "But the truth is never simple," says old Ptolemy, "And yet it is."