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Myth Understood 

Greatness is the burden of the very few. The honorific is thrown around by the careless and the clueless; much like "awesome," "great" has no magnificence anymore. We have been lulled into thinking it's popularity or success. But the masses don't validate greatness. It either is or it isn't, and that judgment is not ours; time decides.

Perhaps greatness is nothing more than a singular individual seeing the world and changing its face. It's a mixture of madness and fortitude, innocence and innovation, loneliness and curiosity. Greatness is bestowed in real time by a force we can't fathom, but only recognized in hindsight as a truth we can't resist. There are very few great men. Alexander of Macedon was one. Director Oliver Stone wants to be.

Almost any film that's written about as much as Alexander was before its first screening is going to have trouble. An ambling preamble usually provides plenty of cover for the long knives to be noisily sharpened; when it's a Stone venture, there's double danger. He's the filmmaker so many love to hate; his technical mastery (JFK) and gifted direction of young actors (The Doors) is equaled only by his ego and messy artistic sensibilities (Natural Born Killers). His greatest strength -- and most marked weakness -- is the glorious gulf between his reach and his grasp, a trait he shares with his film's mighty conqueror. In many ways, Alexander, a fine movie with its share of brilliant moments, makes you wonder if the way Stone sees his title character is also the way he wants to see himself.

Alexander begins with the conqueror on his deathbed; the action quickly jumps to the future, as one of the great one's generals, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), dictates a life of his former leader. From there, the film is the most conventionally coherent that Stone has made to date. We follow Alexander from his boyhood to his vanquishing of the Persians and his ultimately fatal push into India. But Alexander is far from simple.

The script dwells on Alexander's relationship to myth, both the stories of old and his own image-in-the-making. The wide-eyed boy accompanies his father, Philip (Val Kilmer), to watery caves where the likenesses of Prometheus and Oedipus are etched on the walls in an unmoving picture. The one-eyed, drunken Philip would like to appear on that wall and knows he never will; Alexander, believing himself the progeny of the gods, simply accepts that his place in the pantheon awaits. They are two sides of the same coin, this father and son, and they represent the two parts of Stone's personality as a filmmaker. The gifts he gives us onscreen are a commingling of this kind of discouragement and this brand of desire.

It is a long and lonely path forged by his Alexander, a corruptible man with an incorruptible idea. As he journeys on to his heart of darkness in the jungles of Asia, the screenplay provides glimpses of the man behind the myth he is creating: his tortured relationship with his mad, vengeful mother (Angelina Jolie), his lifelong devotion to companion Hephaistion (Jared Leto at his most daintily beautiful), and his impulsive and controversial marriage to the fierce Sogdian princess Roxane (Rosario Dawson). Through it all, Ptolemy's artful words mirror the realities of Alexander's loneliness and insatiability as they play out. Stone's Alexander is a dreamer whose aspirations outstrip the understanding of his times, a seeker forever pushing past the horizon, a man following destiny without fear of failure. He is mostly misunderstood until his time has past.

This is the very core of Alexander, not straight-up action-adventure like Wolfgang Petersen's Troy and not some half-baked metaphor for George W. Bush or Vietnam or anything else smart-sounding critics may have decided. It is an existential exercise, and it's impossible not to see Stone where he would have us see Alexander.

Yet, even if the director's subconscious colors every scene, the film still works on its own merits. Stone displays a startling visual subtlety, largely eschewing his usual filmic flamboyance and channeling that originality into creating, along with cinematographer Rodrigo Prieto (Amores Perros), a vivid portrait of ancient Greece and Asia Minor. Stone also skips certain historical events (the battles at Granicus and Issus and the siege of the city of Tyre) that a lesser director might have played for cheap pyrotechnic payoffs; instead, he showcases one truly epic battle at Gaugamela, a staggering progression of fight scenes that encapsulates both Alexander's audacity and his strategic genius.

Up-and-comer Farrell provides an admirable and emotional Alexander, as much as any man could bring to life a myth. Hopkins' aging Ptolemy drips with regret and wisdom, his venerating voice trembling at just the perfect moments and then no more. But the movie truly belongs to Jolie's Olympias, more Medusa than mother, more devourer than nurturer. Like so many of Stone's films, Alexander is far from perfect. Like most of his work, there is stunning consolation to be found in its intricacies and exalted intentions. Many have deemed Alexander a failure. Stone shouldn't worry, for as Ptolemy observes of Alexander, his failures surely tower over other men's successes.

click to enlarge Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Colin Farrell stars in Oliver Stone's Alexander
  • Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Colin Farrell stars in Oliver Stone's Alexander
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