What we know for sure about ancient Troy and the Trojan War is barely enough for a decent daydream.
We know Troy existed in what is now Turkey, and we know a war took place that lasted almost as long as America's war in Vietnam. But most of our "knowledge" about that war comes from Homer, the Shakespeare of the ancient world: a blind poet whose work may have been written by someone else, and who largely fabricated the epic story of these now-legendary events. First we had O Brother, Where Art Thou?, a satirical riff on Homer's Odyssey. And now there's Troy, based on his Iliad and directed by Wolfgang Petersen (The Perfect Storm), with a mega-buff Brad Pitt as Achilles, the mighty conqueror of the Trojan War of 1200 B.C.
You'll need a Playbill (or a classical education) to keep up with who does what and why. So here's the Cliff's Notes version.
Agamemnon (Brian Cox), a Greek king, is all about hegemony. His brother Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson), another king, is married to the lovely young Helen, so he's all about love. Rather than fight a protracted and uncertain war with Troy, Agamemnon agrees to a sort of peaceful co-existence -- until after the forging of an accord, when the young prince of Troy, Paris (Orlando Bloom), cuckolds Menelaus and takes a very willing Helen back to Troy.
Naturally, this means war. Agamemnon is happy to restore his brother's honor, as long as Odysseus (Sean Bean) can talk the invincible Achilles into leading the army. Achilles is more than just a heel: He's a vainglorious existentialist who mocks his elders' revered gods, and although he coolly dismisses a boy's wide-eyed query about whether his mother was a goddess, you suspect he enjoys the reputation. (In subtle ways like this, David Benioff's screenplay acknowledges its Homeric iconography without ever making you feel like you're actually reading Homer.)
It doesn't take Odysseus long to talk his buddy into war for war's sake, so Agamemnon assembles the biggest fighting force ever. When they reach the walls of Troy, the uncontrollable Achilles, who was "born to end lives," taunts Agamemnon by withholding his services. Meanwhile, inside Troy, good King Priam (Peter O'Toole) is more than a little ticked at his impetuous younger son for bringing this plague upon them. Fortunately his brave older son, Hector (Eric Bana), is Achilles' equal in battle.
What grows from this is a lot of talk about Courage, Honor, Love, Destiny and The Gods, interrupted for elaborate battles and well-choreographed one-on-one grudge matches, which themselves sometimes pause for talk about Courage, Honor, Love, etc. ("Enough for one day," the enemies respectfully agree, and then turn to go home after a bloody clash.) The best that I can say about the face that launched a thousand ships is that she wore too much eye makeup: Petersen never convinces us that even a callow lovesick boy like Paris would risk his father's kingdom for a sullen blonde like Helen (Diane Cruger).
Troy has no texture, no sense of how these ancient people did anything but fight wars and cremate their dead. At times the movie looks authentic, but mostly it feels more like a feat than a drama. Surely $100 million buys more than just warmed-over epic gestures, big battle scenes and a wooden horse. Benioff should have included the bickering gods as characters the way Homer did in his writing. A sense of the supernatural might have turned Troy into a much more interesting hybrid of classical literature and Hollywood style.
Throughout all of his manly storytelling, Peterson omits one very important character: Palamedes, the cagey Greek who tricked a malingering Odysseus into joining the war effort (a detail that Troy omits), and who reputedly invented dice, the lighthouse, military ranks, eating meals at regular intervals and -- here's the important one -- jokes. If ever a movie needed to lighten up a little, it's Troy. These cultures are the cradles of Western civilization, and yet their denizens never crack a smile. Did you hear the one about the Trojan War movie where the superstar American actor, surrounded by British and Australian co-stars, talked with a mannered British style accent that slipped in and out?
Pitt's Achilles is an odd mix of elements: Sometimes just an alpha male (like a silverback gorilla, in fact), sometimes a tyrant (he raises his sword in a Hitler-esque gesture), and sometimes the beguiling Muhammad Ali of his day. ("If you can do what you say, you ain't braggin'" -- Ali.) I blame Pitt's generally unobtrusive shortcomings -- he glowers a lot, with his mouth hanging open -- more on direction than the actor himself. He's especially awkward in his one scene with O'Toole, who nibbles gracefully on the scenery while Pitt looks bored and befuddled. Bloom is supposed to be a heartthrob. Maybe for a sloth, although after a while his willowy beauty seems perfect for the stupid boy he's playing. The others are all fine, and I don't mean to sound like too much of a snob when I declare that English actors are incapable of giving bad performances.
In these dangerously patriotic times, Troy is decidedly schizophrenic about whether war is a thrill or a folly. So how much modern politics we should read into it? There's a wise old father who goes to war only as a last resort, and a naïve son who thinks that dying in battle is noble. From Hector: "The gods won't fight this war for us. This is not a conflict of nations. It's a conflict between two men." From Achilles: "Imagine a king who fights his own battles. Wouldn't that be a sight?" And then there's Odysseus, a good man who acquiesces to his vengeful king. If there's such a thing as reincarnation, Odysseus may be alive today in the body and soul (what remains of it) named Colin Powell.