Oliver Stone’s 2004 epic Alexander is a hulking behemoth of a film begging for a sharper edit and a solid sense of purpose. It rambles through its 167 minutes running time (alternate versions run at 175 and 214 minutes, respectively), repeatedly informing us that Alexander was a great military leader and politician, but rarely giving the audience any insight into what makes him tick and how he comes to be the greatest of men. The film is all tell and very little show, a listing of historical events and names rather than a properly formed and executed narrative.
The story of Alexander the Great is related well after the fact by one of Alexander’s now aged former generals, Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins). Through Ptolemy’s eyes we’re shown Alexander’s childhood, where he is caught between his loutish father Philip (Val Kilmer) and his exotic, distrusted mother, Olympias (Angelina Jolie), and begins his life-long friendship with Hephaestion (played as an adult by Jared Leto). Alexander (played as an adult by Colin Farrell) is an intelligent and curious boy who grows into an ambitious and restless young man and whose relationship with his father becomes increasingly strained, due in no small part to the animosity between Philip and Olympias. Following his father’s assassination, Alexander succeeds to the throne and begins to bring to fruition his father’s plans to expand the empire into the east.
Alexander, now claiming to have been sired by Zeus rather than Philip, slowly creeps his way across Asia, defeating the Persian Emperor Darius (Raz Degan) and, in the process, proving himself to be as much a diplomat as a conqueror, emphasizing the need to integrate the conquered peoples into Greek society. As part of his efforts he takes a foreign wife, Roxana (Rosario Dawson), an act which causes considerable distress in Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion, which the film constantly hints at being more than just friendship. The portrayal of Alexander’s relationship with Hephaestion illustrates one of the major problems with the film generally: it is at once too ambitious and too timid. The scope of its story is large, wanting to examine all the big events of Alexander’s life, but it consistently pulls away at moments when it might illuminate something about Alexander the man. Throughout the film characters keep saying how much Hephaestion means to Alexander, but the film itself does nothing to expand on that and give the relationship any depth. Even when they finally part with Hephaestion’s death, the film misses the opportunity to actually make anything of the relationship. Haphaestion dies while Alexander’s back is turned as he monologues to himself about the great things he has yet to do and which he wants Haphaestion to witness. It’s an extremely empty moment and indicative of the general hollowness of the film.
The screenplay by Stone, Christopher Kyle, and Laeta Kalogridis seeks to encapsulate the entire life of Alexander the Great, from childhood until death, and although Alexander only lived for 32 years, those 32 years were packed with major, world-altering events, which means that fitting his entire life into one film would be a difficult task. As it is, Alexander feels both over-stuffed and entirely too shallow. It loses the thread when it tries to be a history lesson, relying heavily on voice-over narration from Hopkins to fill in the blanks, and it doesn’t develop the characters and their relationships enough to make it compelling outside of the historical aspect.
The cast is packed with well-regarded actors, but no one really comes out of this film unscathed. Jolie, to her credit, brings some life to the film but her fiery performance feels out of place against the others, most of which are far too serious while hers drifts into high camp. Farrell, a good actor generally, is not really right for the role of the larger than life Alexander. A role such as this requires an actor who can chew scenery while still being taken seriously – think of Charlton Heston in Ben-Hur – an actor who plays to the scale of the story. Farrell instead plays the role more quietly and as a result his performance is dwarfed by the production.
With a budget of $155 million, Alexander is a giant wasted opportunity. It’s a large scale production that is generally lacking in pomp and spectacle – though, to be fair, some of the battle scenes are extremely well rendered, and in which all the individual elements tend to work against each other more often than they work together in harmony.