November 15, 2023
Petulant, disagreeable, prideful, ugly, childish, insecure, genophobic, and impatient. These are the adjectives that can be used to describe one of the most powerful men in the history of the world: Napoleon Bonaparte. He saw himself as Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, and yet he lacked all the qualities that allowed them to etch their names in the history books. But what he lacked in the personality department he made up for with his tactical genius, orchestrating tens of thousands to swift victories over armies twice as large.
Napoleon was an able opportunist, as is illustrated in the opening title cards that set the stage for the French Revolution. Marie Antoinette and the rest of the royalists are being sent to the guillotine, opening up quite a few positions in the French nobility. The young gunnery commander stuck himself to Paul Barras, who sought to recapture the Port of Toulon. A resounding victory gave Napoleon his first taste of real power and respect, something he would feverishly seek to protect through the rest of his days.
Fortunately for him, this period was ripe with arrogant leaders seeking to establish their claims through military might. England, Austria, Germany, Poland, Italy, and Russia are each pieces in a puzzle that constantly changes shape and size, with some of the pieces aligning one year, and then fighting the next. Napoleon is a finely sharp sword, outgrowing anyone else’s ambition for him until he plants himself atop the throne of Europe.
With his vast historical drama background that includes the likes of The Duellists, Gladiator, Kingdom of Heaven, and The Last Duel, director Ridley Scott knows a thing or two about setting the stage for global conflicts. Even at the age of 85, he’s never taken a moment to slow down, crafting projects that seem to only get bigger the older he gets. It’s no surprise that both he and fellow octogenarian director Martin Scorsese (Killers of the Flower Moon) have found themselves at Apple with their latest historical dramas, the streaming giant plunking down $200 million for each project. While it may not have been the wisest financial decision, it was a fortuitous one for the art of epic filmmaking.
Scott paints a wide canvas for each of the climactic battle scenes. It’s as close to a replica as one could get to the work of director Sergei Bondarchuk in the Soviet version of War and Peace where literally thousands of extras marched across plains as hundreds of cannons engulfed them in carnage. To be fair, Scott does have the benefit of robust visual effects, which are used seamlessly. There is never a feeling that these battles are just one giant CGI army crashing into another. The stakes and violence are real, emboldened by the careful application of strategy; such as cornering the Austrians and Russians at The Battle of Austerlitz through false fronts, hidden calvary, and perfectly timed infantry charges.
The director has never turned in a poorly crafted film, but what does often hold back both his and our engagement is a less-than-ideal script. It’s no coincidence that some of his best films in this later period sprouted off the page through talented screenwriters like John Logan (Gladiator), Steven Zaillian (American Gangster), and Matt Damon/Ben Affleck/Nicole Holfcener (The Last Duel). Napoleon marks the second collaboration between Scott and writer David Scarpa after All the Money in the World, with the results here being quite the improvement over the former.
While there are repeatable inklings of this being a Wikipedia entry condensed down to 158 minutes (the reported future four-hour cut will greatly alleviate this minor problem), Scarpa finds plenty of avenues to dissect Napoleon down to the bone. Much of this is done through the prism of his relationship with his lover Josephine, herself an opportunist who knew what needed to be done to survive in an era where women had little to no autonomy. Both of them are vindictive towards the other, yet they cannot help being addicted to their shared love, as if they realize they are two identical souls that have reached far beyond what they thought they could accomplish.
Joaquin Phoenix and Vanessa Kirby are wondrous as the couple. Obviously, if you need someone to portray an emotionally and physically troubled genius, you get an emotionally and physically troubled genius like Phoenix. It’s as if his version of Napoleon watched Taxi Driver and totally missed the point, but still tries to emulate the Travis Bickle archetype. But while the other world leaders look down upon him, it’s not like they’re much more mature. All of them treat the world like a recess playground, all while millions of lives are casually thrown away. Kirby finds herself in and out of the emperor’s favor, mostly secluded in various castles and palaces. That is where her battles with Napoleon take place, battles of wit and sex, two things she has in spades over him.
The world still properly bemoans what could have been had Stanley Kubrick been allowed to make his Napoleon biopic. There are surely semblances of it in Scott’s film, which continues his string of blockbusters propelled by smart filmmaking and collaborative artistry. It’s timely and timeless in its craft and examination of history, ready to raise the bar just that much higher for later entries in the genre.