Having spent the better part of three hours watching Oppenheimer, I feel relatively (and happily) satiated with what I learned of the life of the father of the Atomic Bomb.
The 1945 film classic, Rhapsody in Blue, may not have been an in-depth… or even accurate… portrayal of the life of George Gershwin, but I still remember it well from my youth and will today always stop at the Turner Classic Movie channel when they play this Robert Alda starrer. It satisfied. The movie helped me with whatever I really had to know about America’s favorite composer of classical music.
Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton may or may not be historically accurate, but it is safe to say that audiences walk away believing they know more about the essence of the man and American history than they did when they entered that theatre.
And then there is Napoleon. A film by Ridley Scott. Did you know there are literally thousands of books about the former emperor of France? Do you know how I know that?
And what was I doing on Google after spending an entire evening watching a movie all about one guy? That is the point of this piece. I should not have had to do that… not after spending the better part of three hours following the adventures of a fella whose forename is the title of that self-same flick.
Napoleon is lusty, and beautiful. Its sets and costumes are sumptuous, its crowd and battle scenes impressive, it is professionally and artistically directed, and it sorta, kinda, doesn’t work. Three hours and I felt I understood the lead character no more than I did before the movie started. When you consider all that went into this movie… and all the resources at the command of Mr. Scott and screenwriter David Scarpa… it makes you wonder… what were they thinking?
It is not because I was a history minor at USC over 60 years ago. I remember a few things from those halcyon days, but my overall knowledge of French history is only un petit peu better than my familiarity with the French language, which is pretty much limited to the names of a few dishes from the old days at Hollywood’s Ma Maison or Miami’s Pastis.
It is a given that Sir Ridley Scott is an accomplished filmmaker. Some of the best titles in movies and TV have some association with this knighted director and sometime producer. Alien, Gladiator, Blade Runner, House of Gucci, Thelma & Louise, Black Hawk Down and in television, the iconic The Good Wife. A person of my background could easily fess up to jealousy of such a resume. Screenwriter Scarpa is not in the same league, and it shows.
In Napoleon we have a movie about a minor officer in the French army who rose through the ranks to conquer most of the known world and became the Emperor of the French Republic. His troops loved him and followed him blindly into battle. When he returned to march on Paris from his exile in Elba, the soldiers sent out to intercept this invasion fell under his spell and joined forces to reinstate him once again to power. Hey, he must have been some charismatic dude.
Now I must ask the question: Have you seen Joaquin Phoenix? The guy is one of our best actors. One could argue that no one plays the neurosis of the ordinary man better. Charismatic? Not so much. Maybe if Scarpa had read his Shakespeare he could have produced a St. Crispin’s Day-like speech from Henry V that might have helped Mr. Phoenix pull that off.
How about once doing something… anything… that would aid the audience to understand what this individual had going for him that would make him such an impressive and outstanding leader of men in battle?
You are going to have to go to those 60,000 books written about the man for anything close to an answer. On Ridley Scott and his three-hour movie you should not depend.
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