“Men of Macedonia,” says the great conqueror Alexander (Colin Farrell) to his exhausted troops in the final half hour of Alexander, “we’re going home.” His men respond with loud cheering and much throwing of petals, and if the movie audience had some petals, they might throw some too: You mean this is almost over? Ending a five-year silence from the once-electrifying director Oliver Stone, Alexander is a large, confused and confusing, and sprawling mess — sometimes a glorious mess, but the few shining moments and images seem hardly worth the almost-three-hour investment. Here, Stone has crafted nothing so much as a densely allusive, emotionally unreadable hymn to his own potency and feelings of martyrdom, a trait that has bedevilled his work in the last decade.
Stone seems almost arrogantly disinterested in the actual Alexander the Great, whose extraordinary story has fuelled countless books (including Mary Renault’s acclaimed trilogy of novels) and even an anime series (Reign: The Conqueror, whose trippy-futuristic handling of the legend is probably truer to the source than all of Alexander). After a perfunctory first half hour, in which we’re introduced to Alexander as the textbook result of a dysfunctional family — his father is the oafish King Philip (Val Kilmer), his mother the snake-fondling Olympias (Angelina Jolie) — we skip past Alexander’s early campaigns and pick him up in Persia, with no dramatization of his brilliant strategies or his way of compelling thousands of men to ride behind him towards almost certain death. We see him name-check a few soldiers before battle, and we’re supposed to think, “Cool, he knows their names. They don’t make imperialists like they used to.”
When the hero of a long epic has his big-dog moment — here, it’s when Alexander, on horseback, faces down an elephant in the battle of India — and you feel more of a swell of pride in the horse than in the hero, that epic is in serious trouble. Colin Farrell tries hard, but it’s probably an unplayable role even if well-written, which it isn’t; the dialogue (what little you can make out over the muddled, overactive sound mix) is your standard sword-and-sandal pomp. Farrell is the classic cocky little Irish guy, perfect in something like Phone Booth, but all wrong for a colossus like Alexander. What’s more, the script never lets Farrell gain emotional purchase on any of the people — his lover Hephaistion (Jared Leto), his wife Roxana (Rosario Dawson) — Alexander is supposed to hold most dear. We’re meant to believe in the great love between Alexander and Hephaistion, but all I could tell was that (A) Hephaistion once beat Alexander at wrestling and (B) they have matching eyeliner.
Stone does make good use of sets and costumes, when we can see them; the two major battles in the film are shot in the same herky-jerky, extreme-close-up style as the football head-slams in Stone’s Any Given Sunday. (“All I can see is sand and horses’ knees!” my companion exclaimed.) Angelina Jolie, thankfully, plays her scenes as femme-fatale camp and creates intermittent pockets of interest. Her sly performance in this mostly leaden affair made me wish she and Stone would work together on something that would challenge them both — maybe Medea, which gets dutifully referenced here.
In Alexander, though, Oliver Stone is deeply into deifying the Great White Male, as he was in his previous historical shambles (though more enjoyable and not nearly as long), The Doors. I don’t think Stone has turned into a Bush supporter overnight, but what are we to make of a movie in which the well-meaning (or so he says) conqueror bends nations of swarthy-skinned opponents to his will, under the rationalization of bringing them higher civilization? Stone touches lightly on that; he reveres Alexander more as a man, a risk-taker, a straddler of worlds. But this oracular piece of hero-worship is perhaps the squarest film yet from this once-hip director. Stone may elevate men who take risks, but Stone the risk-taker — the one who seemed so ferociously purposeful, so heedless of political blowback, in such polarizing works as JFK, Natural Born Killers, and Nixon — now seems as dead as Alexandria.