Empire of the Son

Oliver Stone Pt. 4: War and civilization in Alexander, and an epilogue on W.
by Kevin B. Lee and Matt Zoller Seitz  posted October 17, 2008
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Looking at Oliver Stone's filmography, one can trace a gradual shift—away from the struggles of those dispossessed by authority (like Ron Kovic and Jim Garrison) and toward those who have held the seat of power, like Richard Nixon and Alexander the Great. And if Nixon is about how one man tried and failed to impose his will upon history, Alexander is also a story of a failure. But in the words of Ptolemy, "His failure towered over other men's successes."

Using Ptolemy's dictation of his memoirs as a framing device, the narration is tinged with Ptolemy's impending mortality, his yearning to revisit the promise of his generation in its glorious youth, and his desire to commemorate the past in a glow of mythic grandeur. After so many attempts to cast aspersions on the mythmaking machine, Alexander is about examining a myth that truly inspires.

Like in Born on the Fourth of July, we see a boy raised in a culture steeped heavily in myth. Alexander's estranged mother and father invoke mythical origins. They hold the myths over Alexander's head, vying for custody over his mind and programming him to aspire to greatness. The movie suggests that Alexander's ambition to conquer and unify the world stems from a sublimated desire to reconcile the conflict between his Macedonian father and barbarian mother, which he re-enacts by taking a Bactrian princess as his queen.

Oliver Stone's Alexander also presents an ancient, mythic version of the American empire, forged in violence and bloodshed but led by a king who promoted a thoroughly modern, global civilization founded on a vision of liberation and freedom—economic, racial, and sexual.

At the same time Stone acknowledges that this utopian ideal is compromised by the forces that make it happen, namely an empire driven by endless conquest, resembling the same war machine that Stone thoroughly criticizes in his earlier films. The campaign that Alexander wages in Asia invites comparisons to the Bush administration's war in Iraq. And it wouldn't be an Oliver Stone film without a whiff of conspiracy to taint the official narrative of history.

Alexander was a dreamer and a destroyer—he built up a vast empire and implemented systems of education, commerce, and multiracial culture. But this was achieved through nonstop slaughter. And yet for once, Stone seems open to the possibility that war can be a justifiable and even necessary means to advance the cause of civilzation, and in the creation of myths that persevere and inspire progress throughout history. In interviews, Stone admits a deep admiration for Alexander the Great as a benevolent ruler who blazed a path for civilization. Is Stone implying in this film that the ends justify the means? Alexander rests uneasily alongside his earlier, more conflicted studies of the politics of mythmaking, how it is exploited by the powerful, and how it must be countered or co-opted by the powerless.

Above all, Alexander acknowledges the social necessity of myth—we struggle against it and yet we keep succumbing to its appeal, and pursuing its promises. The real war is in us. Our history, our myths, our stories: these are the territories we fight to possess, symptoms of our disease. —K.B.L.


Epilogue: W.

continues the trajectory of Oliver Stone's political biographies toward examining (and often identifying with) protagonists firmly situated in the seat of power. But as with Nixon, Stone portrays George W. Bush less as a driver than a prisoner of his own destiny. Like all of the protagonists explored in this series, the younger President Bush struggles for self-determination against a social system where family and nation both coddle and control him. And as with Nixon and Alexander the Great, the exorcizing of his personal demons leaves the world utterly changed.

It is a questionable prospect to largely attribute the motivations of a president’s career, and especially the complex series of events leading to the Iraq war, to a man’s lifelong rivalry with his father, as Stone dares to do in W. Nonetheless, this thesis is consistent with Stone’s career-long obsession with the psychological traumas inflicted by fathers and other patriarchal figures (the military, the government) on their children. It’s fascinating to watch Josh Brolin’s portrayal of W. in his youth, as crippled emotionally as Ron Kovic was physically in Born on the Fourth of July, and as desperate in his search for redemption. Young Dubya is barely able to articulate his ambitions without recoiling in fear of his father’s disapproval. Bailed out by the elder Bush from one mishap after another on a pre-paved road to success while plying himself with booze as his only means of self-expression, W. is a man effectively castrated by the American Dream. It is only when he casts himself as a born-again public servant (declaring that he answers to an even greater Father than his own) that he finds sufficient ego fulfillment to challenge the legacy that has long haunted him. Some viewers may find little use for this Freudian apologia of the Bush persona in understanding the many domestic and global crises that emerged during his administration (in the film even Bush complains about “all this psychobabble about me in the media”). But if W. makes for a compelling account of the failure of America on a psychic level, it’s because Stone has spent his career perfecting this narrative.

W. breaks ranks with Stone’s previous political biographies in its relative absence of subjectivity. Missing are JFK’s frantic, interrogatory mode of representation; Nixon’s schizophrenic simultaneous portrayals of its lead as tragic hero and troll; or even Alexander’s revisionist framing device. The script often sounds like a pastiche of infamous soundbites and published accounts delivered verbatim; enthusiasts of Stone’s early-'90s heyday may mourn the replacement of his hyperbolically expressive camerawork with a more conventional shot/reverse-shot approach. But when Bush discovers that Saddam has no WMDs, Stone's unfettered dramatization leaves both Bush and the viewer to contemplate how this disastrous self-deception could happen in the mundane light of day. Instead of tearing into the historical record, Stone lets W.'s perforated grasp of reality speak in its own words. 

The simple approach opens Stone's filmmaking to new levels of nuance, most notably in Josh Brolin's performance as George W. Bush. Brolin shades Bush's overfamiliar mannerisms with enough variation of timing and emphasis to suggest an active mind working anxiously behind the folksy drawl and granite cowboy posture. During a luncheon scene between Bush and Richard Dreyfuss’s sinisterly understated Dick Cheney, a lightning-flash raising of Brolin’s eyebrows asserts his alpha dog stature (even as Cheney subtly jerks his commander in chief’s chain). In Bush, Stone may have discovered his quintessential protagonist, a man defined by little more than his heedless drive toward a promise of self-fulfillment informed by fear and entitlement.

In terms of narrative efficiency, W. is Stone’s strongest work since JFK, moving the story along a swift, straight course even as it jumps nonlinearly among the formative moments of W.'s adult life. Some key moments, such as W.'s conversion to Christianity and his first presidential campaign, are exposited just enough to advance the story, forgoing the lengthy exploration of how events develop character in Nixon and Alexander. On the other hand, the briskness of this biography (fast even at two hours) conveys the sensation of history happening quicker than the mind can fully comprehend, which may reflect the subjectivity of its character after all. During a remarkable scene among Bush’s inner circle in which the plan for a pre-emptive strike on Iraq is formulated, Bush's advisers take turns pitching their narratives either for or against invasion in what amounts to a storytelling competition with historical consequences. At this critical moment, Bush is both the final decider and a mere spectator, a proxy for the proverbial Joe Six-Pack, settling on a simple story of Good versus Evil that he thinks will most appeal to the American people (with master populist strategist Karl Rove nodding approvingly). It’s a moment where his faith in simplicity, the same virtue he ascribes to the American people, proves to be his undoing.

The dream image that recurs from start to end in W. is of the would-be hero standing center field at Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, Texas, waiting eagerly to leap the fence and make a game-saving catch. In the final iteration of this fantasy, W. not only loses sight of the ball but the stadium. They are metaphorical images of a value system of personal glory to which he is forever indentured, and whose larger sociological workings prove to be beyond his comprehension. —K.B.L. 


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Courtesy Warner Bros. Pictures
Colin Farrell in Oliver Stone's Alexander
Video: Alexander


video essay  |  Oliver Stone  |  Retrospective  |  Hollywood  |  American President  |  Cold War  |  biopic  |  violence


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Kevin B. Lee is editor of the Keyframe journal at Fandor and programming executive at dGenerate Films.

More articles by Kevin B. Lee

Matt Zoller Seitz is a writer and filmmaker whose debut feature, the romantic comedy Home, is available through Netflix and Amazon. His writing on film and television has appeared in The New York Times, New York Press, and The Star Ledger, among other places. He is also the founder of The House Next Door, a movie and TV criticism website.

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Author's Website: The House Next Door