In his film about one of history's greatest conquerors -- a man who lived well before the invention of the moist towelette -- Oliver Stone sets the table in a rather modern way: with a scene of domestic violence. The child who will become Alexander the Great is in the bedchamber of his mother, Olympias, absorbing her tutelage on life, with live snakes as visual aids, when his father bursts in. Philip, the king of Macedonia, is a warrior and brute who tries to take his unwilling wife by force. But she resists, and a drunken Philip retreats when he sees his son's wide-eyed gaze upon him.
The scene forms the template for Alexander: Into an adulthood which would find him by age 25 lording it over all but a scrap of the known world, Alexander (Colin Farrell) was riven between the expectations and ways of life embodied by his parents. One-eyed Philip (Val Kilmer) is a Hobbesian fatalist who reminds him there's no glory without suffering, and who emphasizes the tragic side of the Greek myths that inspire the boy; Olympias, as played by a ripely entertainingly Angelina Jolie, bears aloft the Macchiavelli branches of the family tree, alerting her son to treachery and using him as a weapon against the husband she loathes. Bright, sensitive young Al is continually torn between meeting dad's expectations and not letting mom down.
At least, that's Stone's version. But while psychoanalyzing even famous men from 23 centuries back is a risky proposition, the director and co-writer doesn't stop there. His epic hero's near-Oedipal struggles constitute just one among a sackful of themes Stone hauls through the three-hour movie like a street peddler holding a clearance sale.
Alexander follows the future Colussus from his boyhood in the united Greek-Macedonian kingdom his father forged, including his tutelage by wise old Aristotle (a hairy-chested Christopher Plummer), who warns his pupils against lust and indeed, excesses of all kinds. After Philip is assassinated, Stone captures the golden-haired warrior conquering Persia, marrying a native, foiling an assassination plot against himself, and pressing on across thousands of miles of Asia, crossing the icy mountains of Hindu Kush before finally hitting the wall in India, where he faces a mutiny by his own undefeated but increasingly exasperated soldiers, who after years in the field long for home. He is brought down, at last, by his own visionary hubris.
For all its requisite grand settings -- the splendor of Babylon, the elegant library at Alexandria, Egypt, from which Alexander's now-aged former general Ptolemy (Anthony Hopkins) narrates the long-dead emperor's story -- Alexander boasts few really provocative visuals, though one, Alexander's mounted confrontation with an Indian war elephant, is a doozy. The battle scenes in particular, though giant-scaled and fleshed out with sound-effects gristle, are epic-movie boilerplate, confusing and finally dull for all their quick-cut clangor.
Meanwhile, as the vulgar Citizen Kane cop of Stone's opening scene suggests, Alexander himself remains largely a mystery. Brilliant in battle as both strategist and fighter, culturally sensitive in governance, he's prone to fits of blind rage, eventually killing a loyal aide.
But if we don't end up understanding Alexander very well, it's not just because Stone dwells on his military genius to the near-exclusion of what many historians consider his greatest legacy: the spreading of Hellenic culture to new lands. Maybe it's because Stone doesn't follow one of his hero's own dictums. "Fortune favors the bold," the emperor says, quoting Virgil -- yet in exploring Alexander's closest personal relationships, to his male friends, Stone -- the howler of Natural Born Killers, the polemicist of Born on the Fourth of July -- is suspiciously discreet. Here's Hephaistion (Jared Leto), with his kohl-rimmed eyes and Allman Brothers hair, whose series of scenes with Alexander tell the film's closest thing to a love story, or indeed, any kind of compelling human story; here are any number of significant glances exchanged with a comely eunuch. Yet the film's only real sex scene is between Farrell and Rosario Dawson, as Alexander's Persian bride, whose naked chassis Stone puts on display in the parade of beauteous, olive-skinned exotics who seem to make up the entire female cast.
Finally, you wouldn't put it past Stone, who's been among Hollywood's most explicitly political filmmakers, to see Alexander's story as some foreshadowing of modern imperialism. The Great One, after all, is driven by a need to compensate for his father's prior failure of nerve in conquering Persia, whose capital of Baghdad Alexander wins and occupies, and as he expands his reach he takes flack for spreading his empire's resources too thin.
Yet while it's hard to imagine Stone seeing, say, George W. Bush as so great a hero and visionary as the Macedonian, one is disoriented by the spectacle of the maker of Platoon celebrating Alexander's triumphant wars of unprovoked aggression, all set to a grandly cheesy score by Vangelis. Sure, you'd rather have a movie with ideas in it than not. But better still if they make sense.