The Macedonian Candidate
Three weeks after 9/11 and only a day before we began bombing Afghanistan, Oliver Stone was at the New York Film Festival pledging to remake The Battle of Algiers "guerrilla-style" in digital video, with Arab terrorists in place of Algerian rebels. The notion of a newly re-radicalized Stone, 'Nam grunt-turned-NYU peacenik, made perfect sense amid the fog of war--particularly given the vet's stated intent to stage his Battle independently and thus avoid Hollywood intervention. (That his team-playing Any Given Sunday had failed to reach the box-office end zone in '99 made the director's vow to relinquish his dwindled clout sound even more credible.)
Yet it was not to be. Three months later, Stone appeared on the red carpet at Sundance with his Castro doc Comandante, whose journalism was so embedded that even Time-Warner-owned HBO canceled its scheduled cablecasts. Another HBO doc, the vaguely pro-Palestinian Persona Non Grata, did allow Stone's sympathy for the devil to hit the Sex and the City crowd where they live. And, at a slim 67 minutes and a budget in the tens of thousands, it suggested the Oscar-winning maker of Platoon might indeed be willing to remain in the trenches in trade for freedom of expression. But an aging boomer's old habits die even harder than the Warren Commission, and Stone soon found himself accepting a German fan's $150-million offer to give the Jim Morrison treatment to another Lizard King by the name of...Alexander the Great.
Who? Never mind that The Incredibles' young audience of multiplex-rescuers wouldn't likely recognize Alexander as the wind-up toy of ancient rulers--an action figure who sated his subjects' hunger for conspicuous consumption in a manner we nonhistorians might call prototypically American. What matters to those of us excited about a dissenter directing this biopic in 2004 is that Alexander, "great" or not, was a fortunate son whose command was given by inheritance, whose unjust invasions were motivated by an Oedipal desire to outdo his second-banana dad and satisfy his bitchy mom. Alas, Stone's Macedonian Candidate has even less to do with the here and now than it does with restoring a Lean brand of majesty to the royal epic. In three long hours, the closest Alexander comes to contemporary resonance is Nixon star Anthony Hopkins's voiceover claim that Babylon was a "mistress far easier to enter than she was to leave."
No great surprise that Stone's ancient world would be governed by an only slightly less ancient view of sex. Introduced receiving an important lesson from his mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie) and her pet snake (atop Mom's mattress, yet), young Alexander inches his way toward manhood in the film's first reel and eventually comes to resemble Colin Farrell in a platinum blond wig. But Mom, perhaps because she's still being played by Jolie, continues to exert a strong pull on the future king, as does the strapping Hephaistion (Jared Leto), whose blue eyes are given a CG glow as if to excuse our hero for falling under their spell. (No need for Stone to justify his warriors' swordplay between the sheets, since, if it was filmed at all, it hasn't survived the final cut.) Having conquered Persia, Alex sets his sights on Asia--in the form of a buxom dancer (Rosario Dawson) who, glowering like the villainess in a Charlie Chan movie, would read as his Achilles heel even without the dire warnings of both mother and narrator.
Stone, the celebrated revisionist whose football movie had a quarterback's wife play the part of domestic abuser, here reduces all of ancient history to the dictates of a 1940s film noir. Yet $150 million does help him secure some lacerating images in his pair of battle scenes: a desert bloodbath whose horrifying scale is revealed from the height of a soaring eagle, and a chaotic jungle skirmish that, notwithstanding the army of marauding elephants (now we know why Stone has been so interested in Thai war epics), suggests Vietnam for keeping the enemy out of sight. In a movie that's otherwise oddly unimpassioned and inconsequential, the most indelible image--the fallen hero's red-tinged vision from the battleground--seems to admit Stone's identification with a man who had everything and let it slip away, an identification that's apt to grow even stronger after the box-office reports come in.
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