In life, Alexander the Great is saidto have slept with a copy of Homer's Iliadtucked beneath his pillow, a dagger beside it. Early on in Oliver Stone's new film biography, there is a scene in which the adolescent Alexander accompanies his father, Philip of Macedonia (Val Kilmer, essaying a regal sense of exhaustion), into a darkened cave decorated with images inspired by Greek mythology. On one wall loom proud Achilles and mighty Prometheus, on another King Oedipus. The point being that the great (and flawed) men of one generation can't help comparing themselves to—and attempting to surpass—their predecessors. Which, for the men of Alexander's time, meant vying for a place in history with those who had been touched by the gods themselves.
In other words, be careful what you wish for.
It's familiar territory for Stone, much of whose career has been spent making cinematic cave paintings about men of his own era who aspired to godhead, from Jim Morrison and Richard Nixon to megalomaniacal 1980s stockbrokers and the testosterone-inflated supermen of the National Football League. So it comes as little surprise to learn that Stone has been trying to mount a film about Alexander the Great since long before he afforded the warrior king a cameo appearance in 1991's The Doors. Thirteen years, $150 million and one contentious, headline-grabbing production later, Alexander seems to have defeated its maker in a way that Alexander himself never was on the battlefield. In tracing the young conqueror's life from infancy to his death (from typhoid or malarial fever) four months shy of his 33rd birthday, Stone is unfailingly serious in his approach, adhering scrupulously to historical fact and immersing himself in the political landscape of the time (356-323 B.C.). Yet at the end of the day—or, at least, of the film's three hours—he has given us an Alexander entirely and fatally lacking in greatness, a hollow triumph of intellect over feeling. What surprises most is how little of Stone's own raging, rambunctious ambition has made it onto the screen. For surely, if Stone were destined to botch Alexander, he could at least be relied upon to do so in a gaudy, grandiloquent fashion reminiscent of the more outré passages in Natural Born Killersand Nixon. (And how difficult could such a feat have been, once Stone had cast two of Alexander's principal roles with those nonpareil Tinseltown eccentrics, Kilmer and Angelina Jolie?) What Stone has delivered instead is no folie de grandeur, but rather the last thing one would have expected from him: an honorable failure.
Not that Alexander lacks interest.Working from his own screenplay (co-written by Christopher Kyle and Laeta Kalogridis, with generous input from historian Robin Lane Fox), Stone is hardly unaware of the contemporary resonances of a story in which a power-crazed despot employs rhetoric about uniting the world as a means by which to conquer it. (To drive the point home, Stone has even depicted Alexander's chief antagonist, the Persian king Darius, with a long, tan face and straggly beard that seem to have been lifted from the bin Laden gene pool.) As has already been widely reported, Stone has also approached Alexander's famed bisexuality with an openness and lack of sensationalism that, while not exactly radical by the standards of, say, Derek Jarman's Sebastiane, is certainly the closest a major-studio feature has come to advocating for gays in the military. And though he lacks the larger-than-life force of personality that the role demands, Colin Farrell gives of himself fully to Alexander, softening his voice and his eyes in a way that evokes the boy striving to become a man. Meanwhile, wreathed in live snakes that are sure to be the envy of most men in the audience, Jolie embodies Alexander's domineering mother, Olympias, with a hissing intensity that is by far the liveliest thing in the movie. You don't doubt for a second she swallows her prey whole.
For almost as long as there have been recorded histories of Alexander the Great, historians have struggled to reckon their subject's evident magnanimity with his equally apparent bloodlust. Hence, one of Alexander's earliest chroniclers, the First century A.D. biographer Plutarch, allowed his own Hellenistic pride to lead him to manufacture defenses for what would today be considered among Alexander's most indefensible actions. But for all his diligent research and analysis, Stone ultimately seems not just unresolved in his feelings about Alexander, but downright noncommittal. That's not to say Stone should be forced to choose between Alexander the lover/dreamer and Alexander the brute—indeed, it makes for a more interesting film that he doesn't. Rather, it's to say that while Stone tells us a great many things about who Alexander was and what he accomplished, he does so largely from the outside in, leaving us with precious little sense of the inner forces, demonic or otherwise, that drove Alexander to conquer most of the known world by the age of 25. That wonderful early scene in the cave notwithstanding, Alexander scarcely brings us closer to its subject than do the marbleized busts one finds in museum exhibitions.