Troy
Director: Wolfgang Petersen. Cast: Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Orlando Bloom, Brian Cox, Peter O'Toole, Diane Kruger, Saffron Burrows, Rose Byrne, Brendan Gleeson, Sean Bean, Garrett Hedlund, Vincent Regan, John Shrapnel, Julie Christie. Screenplay: David Benioff (based on The Iliad by—what was his name again?—Homer).


(Please prepare yourself: you will never, ever forget a single word of this review.)

"Men are haunted by the vastness of eternity," we are told, in the unforgettable first line of voice-over narration in Wolfgang Petersen's summer-movie blowout Troy. According to the film's logic, the unfathomable hugeness of historical time, measured against the ephemerality of any single human life, is what drives men to pursue their greatest actions, to seek their most vainglorious conquests, to enact their most hyperbolic and improbable dreams. I think that David Benioff's screenplay is really onto something here, and I would write it down, if it weren't already so unforgettable. (I'm just now realizing that I have written it down and thus called my own bluff, but that's okay, because now you will never, ever forget this insight, either.)

Not every man has the same idea, of course, about how to win the race against time, how to beat all comers for a choice little plot on history's vaunted tablets, and herein lies the rub that leads to worldly conflict. Take King Agamemnon of Mycenae—I mean really, please, take him! No, I kid. But Agamemnon is a nasty feller, assimilating every Greek province and city-state into his own imperial conglomerate, marshaling trained warriors and naïve young lads to die in all the battles from which he alone benefits. Which doesn't do much for unit morale, but hey, at least his name will be passed down for centuries, and that's hard to argue with (who wouldn't want to be remembered forever?). Still, as Poison once said by way of the Eurythmics, every rose has a thorn in its side, and Agamemnon's nemesis is Achilles, the hotheaded and golden-locked warrior whose peerless facility with sword and shield have made him quite the egotist. Pledging allegiance to no man, Achilles has trained a private little assassin squad called the Myrmidons, and though he enjoys a swift kill and encourages this talent in others, he lambasts the disposition of leaders like Agamemnon who—how did Homer put it?—write military checks that their own asses can't cash. Achilles is a soldier-for-hire, which he hates insofar as he doesn't always endorse his employers' aims; of course, he also loves his ersatz profession, because it makes him desirable and it sustains his legend, hopefully for generations to come, a true measure of unforgettability. For some reason, Troy decides to spell a lot of this out in some opening text, even though the early sequences of the film proper make exactly the same points, by showing rather than telling. But seeing Achilles' name written out for me before the movie started reminded me that history has preserved his name, which inspires me, haunted as I am by history's vastness. I personally will never forget Achilles, or for that matter Agamemnon. They are legend.

Meanwhile, across the Aegean Sea, Prince Hector of Troy is fit to be tied, because his randy little lothario of a brother, Paris, has snatched away the beautiful wife of a foreign leader, one whom the Trojan royals were working hard to appease. The woman's name is Helen, and she has a face that could launch a thousand ships, to quote an unforgettable description. The cuckold is King Menelaus of Sparta, oddly pitched in Troy as a rare bastion of battle-weary pacifism, despite the classical reputation of both the land and its leader as spear-rattling shitstarters. But forget what you've read, because this is Troy the Movie, and it is unforgettable, truly the last word in epic storytelling. The moment Hector sees Paris and Helen absconding together in the Trojan fleet, he realizes that Menelaus will be provoked into martial fury, that he'll call in his brother Agamemnon and the massive Greek army, and that Troy itself will soon be besieged in a huge and costly campaign. Agamemnon's advisor, Nestor, foresees the same prophecy, calling the assault on Troy "the greatest war in the history of time" before it has even begun. I mean, the siege hasn't even commenced, and already, no one can forget it: that's how unforgettable, my friend. Thetis, Achilles' mother, can't forget it either. She warns her son on the eve of battle that he will either go to Troy or stay at home (a pretty safe guess, if you're allowing yourself two guesses), but that Troy alone has the power to inscribe his name into history, myth, immortality. Forgetting is simply not an option, dear reader, and I wish you'd stop treating it like one.

Now, if you've arrived early enough at the cinemas to catch the preview reel any time in the last six months, you know what happens next: every ship known to man hoists its flag, locks in its oars, and sails east to drop some Greek-style justice on Priam's walled empire, no doubt! And if you attended and stayed awake through any high school class that wasn't biology or wood shop, you also know more or less what happens after that: massive loss of life on both sides, Achilles and Hector duking it out before the city walls, weak-kneed Paris desperate to redeem himself, Helen tooling around the palace in ancient Prada feeling bad about all the ruckus. And then there's a bit with a horse, proving that maybe wood-shop wasn't such a bad place to learn this story after all.

Homer's Iliad has been with us, and by us I mean Western Civilization, since the late-eighth or early-seventh century BC. His was not the first version of the tale to be composed, written, sung, or performed, and indeed the Iliad and the Odyssey both presume their original audiences' awareness of the wider narrative of the Trojan War and its aftermath. We often forget (forget?!!) that the Iliad itself is only focused on a forty-one day period at the very end of the ten-year war; concluding as it does with the funeral of Hector, it leaves out many of the most famous incidents of the larger historical myth. For all these reasons, what applies to all film adaptations applies even more to such established (nay, unforgettable!) material. The only reason to re-tell or re-translate the Iliad's story is either to demonstrate some new poetic approach or linguistic proficiency, which reanimates the actual telling, or else to recalibrate this well-known narrative itself into some new shape that brings out different emphases in the content, perhaps by suggesting a resonant connection to the contemporary moment.

I suppose this new version was inevitable, since we haven't had a new Trojan War picture since the dawn of grand-scale CGI, nor since the mid-90s' forward march in battlefield forensics (see, or don't see, Braveheart, plus of course Saving Private Ryan). And after Gladiator won the Best Picture Oscar in 2000, you could have set your sundial against the coming revival of glory-seeking sandal epics. (With the Alexander movies looming on the horizon and the recent TV productions of Helen of Troy and Spartacus, it's officially a movement.) Still, aside from the imposing image of Brad Pitt's F/X-assisted vertical leap, the rest of the CGI whose pixellated fingerprints are all over Troy—multiplying those battleships and exponentiating the background soldiers—don't really add much. The film benefits from advances in cinematic illusion, but it's not really gunning to revolutionize them still further. When Roger Pratt's camera cranes over the phalanxes of Greeks and Trojans, their frontlines meshing into one another like the fastening of a human zipper, it's almost sad how overfamiliar that sight has become from almost every movie in even a proximate genre over the last ten years.

In general, stalwart action director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire, Air Force One) goes for a pretty anonymous Big Movie style, with the cameras positioned at all the customary places. James Horner, who has run his artistic credibility into the ground with endless, keening, bombastic variations on his Titanic score, weds his typical loud-is-meaningful aesthetic to all the clichéd sonic emblems of Bronze Age filmmaking. Invisible women wail and exotic stringed instruments are plucked. Happily, some of the other recent addictions in action filmmaking are avoided; we aren't strangled to death with wire-work stunts, camera filters are mostly left on the table, and I don't remember any stop-action jump cuts or overindulgent slow-motion sequences. I didn't even notice any digital wrens or seagulls gliding over the edifice of the city, which I feared had become compulsory. Still, what's left in the wake of all these admirable avoidances is a movie so laymanish it's a little embarrassing, especially because the characters' incessant odes to immortality are such a clear signpost of the film's own dream of becoming legend in its own right. Helen is only a secondary prize in this movie; it's that Gladiator Oscar that everybody wants, plus some box-office booty. Troy panders to the viewer and flatters the Academy as baldly as Cold Mountain did last year, and to exactly the same unwitting effect: tirelessly exhibiting its own expensive construction, it doesn't seem to realize it's got nothing to show us but its own outrageous price tag.

So artistic advance isn't the reason to tell the Troy story in 2004. The movie doesn't have to be good, and I don't think it even wants to be. It's after something much more nebulous and immature: it wants to be the kind of picture that looks like the kind of thing considered to be good. It wants to be Unforgettable even if there's nothing beyond the core text that's worth remembering. And, in a perverse and damning move, it's that core text—not just the Iliad in particular but the whole mythic construct of Greek pre-history, with its ethical structure of meanings—that the movie is most willing to forego. I like bold adaptations; it's harder to make a Naked Lunch or even a sharp-edged Portrait of a Lady that works independently as filmic art than it is to follow every carefully-laid blueprint in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and create a visual xerox. But bold is not the same as careless, and even worse than careless are hypocritical and self-eviscerating, which is where Troy winds up—not quite in Demi Moore/Scarlet Letter territory, but you can see that from here.

I suspect that Warner Bros. will be all too eager to promote Troy as a critique of war, even if the righteously nationalist, Jessica Lynch timeframe of the film's production might have recommended a glory-of-war propaganda piece. Like The Last Samurai, Warner Bros.' last piece of expensive sword-clashing malfeasance, Troy is carefully balanced with so many political dispositions that you can find buried within it almost any film you want to see. "War is young men dying and old men talking," Odysseus seethes to the even more seething Achilles, and certainly the film's hubristic and savagely opportunist Agamemnon is a scathing (if campy) portrait of an armchair annihilator. It is clear, too, that Menelaus' incensed determination to seize back his trophy wife is only a convenient excuse for Agamemnon's imperial raid. If you stop paying attention right there, you can take home a lesson worth chewing on.

But Troy ultimately has other allegiances, and like a tragic protagonist, it pursues these affinities to foolish and fatal extremes. The movie ingratiates Achilles and Odysseus to the audience by making them the angry heralds of their leaders' immorality, but then, in a familiar Hollywood tradeoff, star power occludes moral sense. When Hector's wife Andromache warns him that 10,000 Greek warships did not arrive to witness a simple duel, the business-side equivalent of her remark is that Brad Pitt did not grow out all those blond Legends of the Fall locks to hold himself out of the fray. All of the worldly, psychic, and theological reasons that eventually compel Homer's Achilles back into battle are condensed here into the slaying of Patroclus—himself predictably de-sexed from Achilles' lover and intimate to his "cousin." From this point, Golden Brad holds lots of adoring close-ups as he murmurs about the glamorizing force of war. "You are never more alive than when you are doomed," he whispers to his Trojan groupie, Briseis. "You," he tells her, "will never look as lovely." And it's true that Pitt has seldom looked quite so Supernova of the Marquee as he is on the Trojan plain, chop-socking and spear-throwing and julienning his opponents, great and small. He even gets a death scene that becomes a sort of annunciation, the camera rising above his Michelangelic body and passing straight into some greyish literal mist of legend.

Odysseus, untrustworthy trickster of Homeric verse and Euripidean drama, is granted the meaning-making voice-over at the film's end. In it, he espouses that when he himself dies, he will feel lucky to have lived among "giants," the "great ones" like speared Achilles and fallen Hector. Somehow, Odysseus has transformed from the One Who Couldn't Get Home to the One Who Explains It All. Achilles' own barbaric conceit and willing self-enlistment into a debased and endless battle is whitewashed from his eulogy, and Hector's own tragedy—dead and dragged in the public purlieu of Troy, felled by his brother's caprice and by the world's endless, internecine grudge against itself—is glitteringly recast as a personal triumph, a lucky confluence of the right man dying at the right time for the right reasons. Both men have luscious widows to mourn them, one with high-boned cheeks and one with round ones, and there's not a whiff of their own mandated fates: sold and parceled into concubinage, their babies dashed to the ground from the high ramparts. Actually, there's no one left to sell these women to, since in this Troy, Agamemnon and Menelaus (chief among the inheriting plunderers) are both killed off. That whole line about "War is young men dying and old men talking"? Troy has effectively torqued that wisdom by its end, so that the newly implied moral is that "War is old cowards getting their comeuppance and young men being remembered for their righteous sacrifice." Plus, this Trojan War starts and finishes in what feels like five or six days, a big kiss-off to that ten-year protraction of myth, which to an Executive Producer must seem like inefficient storytelling and a lot of extra dough. Best to just compress that a little, huh?

I reckon the one lesson these filmmakers really learned from the Trojan War was that craftly little ploy of Odysseus', the one that involves a real big gift. (The horse itself is an impressive bit of production design, though the literalized scene of Odysseus having the idea is unintentionally hilarious, missing only a lightbulb going off over his head.) Troy itself is the biggest Trojan Horse of all. It looks expensive, so it must be grand. It's easy to watch, and doesn't get all arty on us, so it must be harmless and enjoyable. It sounds properly skeptical of war, so it must be smart and honorable. It repeats the words "immortal" and "unforgettable" like a mantra, sort of like Pinocchio wishing and wishing to become a real boy just by asking enough times. And it's sure been ad-blitzed and promoted and souped-up to the nines, so it must be some kind of gift?

But stay awake, keep your eyes open long into that Trojan night, and look at all the little devils that are rattling around inside this generous-sized package. War isn't a decade-long slog: it's over and done with in what feels like a week. War is prompted by pettiness and stoked by the egos of leaders, but the leaders succumb and real heroism is still possible. All those women you remember in the Iliad, the Odyssey, the related tragedies and poems and histories? They ain't unforgettable—war is for (straight) boys. And there's no better way to pass your name down for centuries, millennia. Just steer clear of holy war: the one way in which this Troy seems to respond to some perceived cultural zeitgeist is in its scraping away of all theological content and its deliberate lampooning of any advisor or prophet who speaks of gods and omens. The Big Guy Upstairs only resurfaces in one flattering context, and if memory serves (I thought this film was unforgettable!), God assumes a distinctly monotheistic flavoring for his big moment. "Honor your God, love your woman, and defend your country," Hector exhorts in his pre-battle oration. The camera, the music, the cheers of Hector's audience all register the film's enthusiasm, so this particular holy trinity is left unquestioned.

I wish movies didn't take so damn long to make. Wouldn't it be great if we woke up tomorrow, and some politically savvy humanist, Shohei Imamura or Kimberly Peirce or one of the Makhmalbafs, could respond to this movie with a brash, unromantic Trojan Women, their lenses trained on proud female citizens who had watched their babies and their husbands and relatives die and then woke up to find themselves objectified into prizes? Wouldn't it be interesting to see Troy itself remounted by Gillo Pontecorvo or Alejandro González Iñárritu or Francis Ford Coppola, someone who in one way or another might have lopped the movie off right in the midst of corporal breakdown and ethical dementia, rather than waited around for a beautiful praise-poem to tie it up a little neater? A recent article in Salon Magazine described the unparalleled but dubiously principled rise of Condoleezza Rice as a sad testament to "the triumph of excellence over truth." Troy is too diffuse in its impact to be as interesting or upsetting as Rice, and it's too muted in style and execution to remind anyone of excellence: aside from a strong turn by Eric Bana as Hector and a few interludes of well-edited hand-to-hand combat, it just kind of sits there on the screen, stirring up just enough hew and cry so that the more implicit, contradictory messages will be harder to hear. So what might we call it? Maybe the triumph of exuberance over truth? Of audience gratification over internal consistency? The triumph of some gauzy myth of immortality over the mortal gravity of myth itself? Homer, blind, would not have seen Troy, but even if he could, he wouldn't have recognized it. D+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Costume Design: Bob Ringwood

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