Alexander (R) ★★★½

Review Date: November 24th, 2004

Oliver Stone's Alexander is the sprawling, epic life story of one of the greatest military commanders of all time, a man who conquered most of the known ancient world at a relatively young age. While a massive undertaking, to say the least, the film is still a thoroughly satisfying and poignant lesson in history.


Elderly Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins), who once served under the great Alexander (Colin Farrell), narrates the life story of the man, the myth, the legend--the son of the ambitious King Philip (Val Kilmer), who surpassed his father at every level and charged into the farthest reaches of the world. From early childhood in Macedonia, we see where Alexander gets his drive--mostly from his vengeful, snake-lovin' mother Olympias (Angelina Jolie), who urges her son to take charge, as well from his tutor Aristotle (Christopher Plummer). Even in the taming of his unbreakable horse Bucephalas at 10 years old, Alexander's destiny is evident. The heart of the film lies in Persia, which Alexander conquers in one of the most studied military battles of all time. Alexander spends a great deal of time there--taking in the culture, claiming its riches and marrying a Bactrian princess, Roxane (Rosario Dawson)--much to the chagrin of his Macedonian generals, who are stuck in this foreign land with their king. Despite this success Alexander grows restless and turns his attention to the rest of the world, including the unexplored regions of India. With his army stretched thin, and his Macedonian troops longing for home, Alexander presses them one campaign too far. Succumbing to a mysterious illness at age 33, Alexander dies never quite finding what he so desperately searched for.


Although some may scoff at casting the Irish actor in the lead, Farrell does an admirable job playing the tortured hero, blond wig and all. He exudes plenty of wide-eyed fury and intensity as Alexander the warrior, balanced by the controlled calculation of a hyper-effective military commander, although he isn't nearly as effective as the idealistic, pre-world-conqueror Alexander as he is spiraling down into the haunted, angst-ridden Alexander at the end of his obsessive crusade. Casting Jolie as Olympias is a stroke of genius. Sure, Jolie can play a smart and beautiful woman in her sleep, but her beauty is surpassed only by the power she imbues as Alexander's bitter, yet loving, mother; she's as hypnotic as the snakes she carries around. Kilmer relishes his role as Alexander's father, Philip, in all of his grotesque, wine-soaked glory. Powerful, driven, and battle-scarred, Kilmer's Philip knows precisely what he wants and matches Jolie's quiet intensity with the raw aggressive masculinity of a warrior king who is far more comfortable in his armor than a toga. In the supporting roles, Hopkins is great as always, this time in the thankless role of the narrator, while Dawson plays Roxane with a ferocity that is as mesmerizing as it is terrifying. Standout Jared Leto also turns in a concentrated performance as Hephaestion, Alexander's long-time companion, boyhood friend, and the person who loves Alexander the best. (And we do mean love.)


Alexander is Oliver Stone at his best. An Alexander nut for most of his life, the director gives us a film that--even in its loooong, three-hour form--continuously holds your attention, especially its intense and bloody battle scenes. I mean, honestly, once you've fought against an elephant in armor the plain old sword-and-shield skirmishes pale in comparison. Alexander also possesses a great breadth of visuals: Alexandria's peace, Pella's tension, Babylon's opulence, and India's richness. Yet, as wonderful as the landscapes are, it's personal interactions and internal politics that drive the story--and of course, Stone's penchant for conspiracy theories, as he more than insinuates Alexander was poisoned by his enemies, rather than dying of an ''unknown'' illness. But a problem still remains: Alexander's life was so huge, and he did so much, that it's almost impossible to encapsulate it effectively into one film. Stone instead has to focus on what he thinks is the most important, namely Alexander's renowned conquests, while allowing the pressure cooker in which the young conqueror grew up--the triangle of mother, father, and son--come through in the decisions he makes later in life. For those few of us who have studied Alexander, Stone has made this film especially for us. If you haven't spent any time reading Arrian, and the other histories, this excellent film might just inspire you to do so.

Bottom Line

Oliver Stone has delivered the quintessential Hollywood version of Alexander. Action, sex, treachery, conspiracy, the film puts the ''pick'' in ''epic.''