Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Calling multiple Academy Award-winner Oliver Stone the most underrated director in America might seem perverse or contrarian, but I’ve always felt that, in an odd way, the attention he has received has overshadowed the most interesting aspects of his work. Ever since his extraordinary one-two punch in 1986, when Salvador and Platoon were released in the same year, Stone has been viewed essentially as a political provocateur, and there’s no question that many of his best films —JFK, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, Born on the 4th of July— are radical attempts to challenge the status quo in American political and historical thought (I’ve always thought that Stone’s ability to infuriate partisans on both sides of the political spectrum is just one sign of his greatness). Yet to call Stone the most important political Hollywood director of the last 50 years is, while accurate, actually limiting. He’s much more than that, and the brand-new “Ultimate Cut” of his most maligned film, 2004’s Alexander, is a case in point.
Alexander is, of course, a historical biopic about Alexander the Great (Colin Farrell), who conquered most of the known world in the 4th century BC while only in his twenties. In both style and content it’s firmly in the tradition of 1950s and ’60s spectacles like Spartacus, El Cid and The Fall of the Roman Empire, and this brings me to why I think Stone is an underrated director — or, at the very least, the most underrated overrated director in contemporary American cinema. The fact is that his reputation as a political rabble-rouser has obscured the true breadth of his filmography. Stone has made a horror flick (The Hand), a musical (The Doors), a business drama (Wall Street) and a poignant love story (World Trade Center). Add to these his movies about sports, war and crime — not to mention his political documentaries — and the conventional wisdom that Stone is just a maker of message movies (though he’s damn good at that, too) starts to seem awfully reductive.
Alexander is, in many ways, the most Oliver Stone-esque Oliver Stone movie, in that it contains all of his sides: the old-school Hollywood craftsman and genre filmmaker, the historian preoccupied with war and power, and the scholar who is equally concerned with demolishing myths and creating new ones. Most significantly, Alexander is yet another movie about the theme with which Stone is obsessed above all others: heroism. Whether dealing with musical or political icons in The Doors and Nixon, sports idols in Any Given Sunday, or decent men struggling against the system in JFK and Born on the Fourth of July, Stone has always been interested in how heroes either transcend or fall short of our — and their own — expectations. Alexander is his most ambitious and comprehensive meditation on this theme, particularly in the new 207-minute “Ultimate Cut” that is available on a new Blu-ray packed with extra features.
Now, I must confess that I am philosophically opposed to directors re-editing their own work over and over again for home video releases. For me, films are not just entertainments or works of art but cultural artifacts, snapshots of the moment in which they were made, and that includes where their creators and financiers were at that particular moment in time, not to mention technology. Of course George Lucas can “improve” the effects in the Star Wars movies 20 or 30 years on, but should he? And obviously filmmakers evolve and mature and change over decades, and see the ideas in their earlier work differently, but does that mean they should alter that work, which was an honest representation of its period in both film history and its creators’ lives? Unless it were a case where the filmmakers truly had their work wrestled out of their hands and drastically recut by the studio, I think the answer is no — particularly when, as in the case of Lucas, Michael Mann and other directors, the new edits more or less replace the originals on DVD shelves and in the public imagination.
Clearly Oliver Stone does not share my point of view. By my count, this is the fourth version of Alexander (after the theatrical version, director’s cut and “Final Unrated Cut”), and my DVD library also includes extended or altered versions of JFK, Nixon, Natural Born Killers, and Any Given Sunday. And I have to admit that, while theoretically I’m against such tinkering, any objections I have are completely canceled out by the work itself — for, like Ridley Scott, Oliver Stone is one of those directors whose new, extended cuts are invariably superior to their theatrical versions. In both cases, I think the directors are often limited by thinking big — both in terms of ideas and in terms of visual and narrative scope — at a time when epic filmmaking isn’t particularly in vogue. They’re contractually obliged to deliver movies of a certain length, and the result is that the directors are often shortchanged along with the viewers, cheated out of movies exploring the kinds of subjects that need long running times. Thus in 2004 Stone bowed to studio pressure and released a truncated (though still almost three-hour) version of Alexander that wasn’t able to fully follow through on all of the issues that it raised. His 2014 version, however, has restored several cut scenes and drastically restructured the overall story in a manner that, paradoxically, feels far less long than the earlier, shorter cut.
The improved clarity of the long version makes it easier to get swept up in the majesty of Stone’s vision, and plays up the bold, mythic quality of the performances and emotions — material that feels even more audacious now than it did 10 years ago, and more rewarding in its scope. The truth is, I can’t think of another film outside of Boogie Nights that offers so many of the delights, both high and low, that movies have to offer. Alexander asks profound questions about history, ethics and the human condition, posing all of them via exquisitely composed frames and a carefully calibrated use of color, light and production design. It’s also chock-full of sex, humor and gory violence that is alternately thrilling and disturbing, and it’s got performances that veer from naturalism to outrageous theatricality — sometimes in the same scene. It’s this juxtaposition of the satisfactions of pulpy genre filmmaking with philosophical and political seriousness that most earns comparison with Kubrick’s Spartactus— and that got Stone into trouble with American critics and audiences when the picture was released in 2004. The very thing that makes Alexander great — the astonishing variety of ideas, styles and tones that it contains — is what made people somehow think Stone had gotten it wrong or made a mistake, as though a filmmaker with serious intentions couldn’t possibly resort to the kind of melodrama or salaciousness toward which Stone often gravitates.
But Stone is a director who embraces every intellectual, technical, aesthetic and visceral pleasure that cinema can give without discrimination — he’s as committed to a scholarly dissection of diplomatic strategy as he is to sex scenes that are goofy and erotic in equal measure, or to rousing, epic action sequences that put any contemporary studio tent-pole to shame. Indeed, on any one of its many levels Alexander delivers more than most entire movies. You want an intricately choreographed and kinetic, large-scale battle scene that leaves Saving Private Ryan in its dust? Check out the Battle of Gaugamela that opens the picture. You want Shakespearean familial power-plays conveyed through deliciously stylized performances by Angelina Jolie and Val Kilmer at their most playful? Watch the material exploring Alexander’s shifting allegiances between his mother and father. Or do you prefer a thoughtful meditation on the very nature of history and storytelling and how we view our heroes? Well, you get that too in the newly shaped material involving Anthony Hopkins as Ptolemy. There’s something like a dozen movies in one here, and they’re all terrific.
Writing about a movie that has been unfairly disparaged turns one into a sort of evangelist; you want to grab the reader and shake them until they see the greatness that you find so obvious. The power of that evangelical urge becomes even greater when the very strengths of the film under discussion make it so easy to criticize, as is the case here. Because there’s an unmanageable, messy quality in Alexander that comes from a bold director trying to outdo himself and everyone else. Emotions are played out with such excess of intensity that some of the viewers who were uncomfortable with the original release version will undoubtedly be even more uncomfortable now. I, for one, love the operatic performances in this movie and the smoldering looks exchanged not only between men and women, but also men and men, women and women, and even mother and son. The film has sex on the brain from beginning to end, and is as complex, conflicted and original in its treatment of this subject as it is in nearly everything else.
I realize that we’re only halfway through the year, but I feel pretty confident that the best film of 2014 is actually a film that was made in 2004 — and that if there is any justice in the world, it will finally, in this new incarnation, be recognized for the masterpiece that it is.