Wednesday, February 02, 2005

"Alexander" - an ode to neo-conservatism 

I went last night to see "Alexander" with Mrs Chrenkoff and a good friend of ours who is an ancient history buff. Fully aware of atrocious reviews generated by the film, we went in with the intention of, if anything else fails, simply having a long (almost 3 hours) laugh. Which we did (our friend called the movie an epic, in a sense of an "epic disaster"). We shared the cinema at the local multiplex with one other viewer, which I guess tells you everything you need to know about "Alexander".

The film is bad. Dialogue is mostly laughable; ponderous, didactic, and there is far too much of it in a film about the ultimate man of action. Virtually everyone is miscast (including Colin Farrell in the main role, who starts off looking like a very young Steve "the Crocodile Hunter" Irwing and ends up an ancient David Lee Roth after a particularly tiring tour), and virtually everyone misacts (and why does Babylon look like Las Vegas?). The idea of giving the characters modern accents (Irish for the Macedonians, Russian for Alexander's psycho mother Olympias) is perhaps one of the least bizarre aspects of the movie. Some unkind souls have said that "Alexander" presents the life of one of the most interesting characters in history with all the interesting bits cut out. That's not quite true, but Alexander's conquests and adventures are not the center-point of Stone's movie; it's the psychobabble about taking your army to the ends of the earth because that's as far as you can get away from your mother. The modern Greeks, angry that Stone portrays their national hero (who was never a hero to Greeks while still alive) as bisexual, should rather be angry at being left out of the picture altogether.

Having said all that, the film is not a total disaster. It has, as they say, its "moments".

Considering "Alexander" is 1) a mainstream movie, 2) financed by the Europeans, and 3) made by Oliver Stone, call me crazy but all throughout the film I couldn't escape the impression that in both its original storyline as well as in the treatment it receives from Stone, it is one long ode to neo-conservatism. Let me briefly explain.

Macedonia (the United States) is considered by the Greeks (the Europeans) to be a rather barbarian, unsophisticated, uncouth and violent place on the periphery of their glorious civilization, yet the Macedonians strongly feel themselves to be a part of the Hellenic world (the West). More than that, the Macedonians are staking the claim to the leadership of all the Greeks to lead this motley coalition in the fight against the oriental tyranny of Persia (that one is pretty easy to guess). The Greeks, however, while having faced the Persians many times in the past, now seem oblivious to the continuing danger and are far more concerned about the Macedonian hegemony. Persia, meanwhile, is happy to keep the Greek world divided with skillful use of propaganda and gold (the Wahabbi money and the Oil for Food scheme). They even go as far as to assassinate Alexander's father Philip (the shades of the Iraqi assassination attempt against Bush Sr in Kuwait in 1993?) in order to thwart the imminent Macedonian/Greek invasion.

Alexander understands that while an uneasy peace exists at the moment, Persia has to be pre-emptively attacked and defeated once and for all, if it's to never threaten the Greek world again. But there is another aspect to Alexander's military adventure - the desire to liberate the peoples of the East from under the Oriental despotism and tyranny [as discussed extensively throughout the movie by Alexander and his pal Hephaistion. The dialogue sounded so contemporary that my jaw, if didn't exactly drop, it certainly descended slightly. What the hell was Stone thinking?]. For this ambition, Alexander faces constant criticism from those (the realists) who think his vision too utopian; the Easterners, after all, are barbarians only accustomed to slavery, they don't know what freedom is and certainly wouldn't know how to handle it.

But despite such disdainful Macedonian criticisms as well as continuing rebellious grumblings from the Greeks, Alexander presses ahead and with a well-disciplined and well-trained military force, considered by many to be far too small for the task, he conquers the Persian empire in a series of land engagements in Mesopotamia and after a guerilla campaign in Afghanistan. At the height of his victories he is accused by many of his own of engaging in a never-ending war with no "exit strategy" that would allow his overstretched and exhausted military machine to return to civilian life and enjoy the spoils of victory.

So much for the parallels. There are numerous differences, too, of course, as you would expect when comparing events and personalities separated by the gulf of more than twenty three centuries. Alexander doesn't ultimately achieve his vision, either, yet he does manage to change the world, and as the narrator Ptolemy says, even Alexander's failures towered over achievements of others.

Oliver Stone would froth at the mouth at the suggestion that his biopic of the ancient conqueror in any way reflects or endorses the present day neo-conservative crusade to remake the Middle East and Central Asia. But if anything, Alexander's effort to bring the benefits of the Hellenic civilization to the oppressed peoples of the East was an infinitely more ruthless and bloody an affair than the current enterprise in Iraq and Afghanistan. Just about every film critic under the sun has castigated Oliver Stone for his many failings in making "Alexander." That his film can be taken as an endorsement of the current American foreign policy would, I'm sure, be far more hurtful to Stone than dozens of bad reviews.


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