Movie review: "Troy" by Wolfgang Petersen

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Official site and IMDb page:

The greatest battle of the antiquity. The greatest heroes. The greatest story.


Read on for the full review...

IMPORTANT NOTE: This review contains spoilers. It is supposed to be like that. This is the Iliad, it's classic culture, you're supposed to be familiar with the outline of the plot. If not... tough luck, read the book first, or see the movie. Or don't read the review at all. (shrug)

The most astonishing aspect of this movie is that it was not received well by critics, at least not in the US, although it did pretty well internationally. I wonder what exactly those critics were expecting. I also wonder what are the criteria by which one is qualified to be a movie critic, because after "Troy" these criteria started to seem awefully shallow to me.

In any case, in essence, "Troy" is a modern retelling of the story of the war of Troy by Homer - the Iliad - taking quite a few liberties from the original plot. It is not really less symbolic than the original poem, but the symbols are different - I'll get to that later. It is no more, no less than that: the Iliad viewed by the contemporary eye and filtered through modern sensibilities, interpretations and expectations. And yet it manages to deliver the original message only marginally altered. Quite a feat in and of itself, but that's not everything.
Let's dissect the movie and see what are its distinguishing features.

No doubt, the central character in the movie, as in the original poem by Homer, is Achilles. The fact that it's played by Brad Pitt was what kept me from seeing the movie for more than a year. How come, I was thinking, the greatest hero of the Greek antiquity, the epitome of courage and martial prowess and manly strength, is played by pretty boy Pitt, with those feminine eyes and his manners of an irretrievably urban creature? Not to mention his slender, boyish physique, which is anything but a warrior's?

What can I say, apparently six months worth of working out with the best trainers Hollywood money can buy did change that physique and made it more credible. In fact, given the scarcity of any kind of resources at the time of Iliad, given the most likely total lack of any notion of a proper diet even among the wealthy, the shape that Pitt got into for the movie was probably the best there was 3200 years ago. So they got that right. But what about the rest, what about the presence, the style, the body language and the rest - how could they cast the smooth-skinned and metrosexually-mannered Pitt in the role of a virile superhero such as Achilles?

Well, make no mistake, Brad Pitt playes the character with every bit of his typical shallowness, every inch the self-centered creature defined by his other appearances. But you know what? It fits like a glove!
I am still not sure whether that was the touch of a master, or pure luck. But if it wasn't random, then I bow deeply to director Wolfgang Petersen, or to whoever suggested Pitt for the role. Because that's exactly what was needed to convey the message.

Let's see. Achilles is the equivalent of a modern rock star, living for fame and glory and little else. Back then, glory came from military conquest, so that's what glory junkies did. This character is so narrowly defined by the movie, so single-dimensional through his lust for glory that it drives the whole plot and shapes the result of the story. Just like the original Achilles in the Iliad, who is posessed by his almost non-human fury.
In fact, his drive is so intense that it voids him from pretty much all human "content". Yes, Achilles has the consciousness of his mortality; yes, he weeps over the dead body of his enemy, but those are short bursts of humanity quickly drowned by the blazing fire of his quest.
It has been said that one of the biggest liberties that the movie took from the original story is the absence of the gods. The gods take an important and active place in the Iliad, helping various characters, even intervening directly in battle. Yet none of that happens in the modern retelling. Or does it? Well...

Brad Pitt's Achilles is so driven, it's like he's just a human form, empty of actual human content, inhabited instead by a force above, moved by a history-shaping dynamic potential from Plato's world of ideals. He's not real, he's ideal. He's not human - in Homer's world, someone like that would no doubt be deemed a demigod, a man inhabited by a supernatural force. Or maybe a god proper, in a man's body.
It is precisely his emptiness, his self-centered way, what appears to us as shallowness - empty of human content, of soul - that betrays his near-god status. He doesn't have a soul because he doesn't have to - he's like a god from Heaven, descended down here to shove the history sideways and change the destiny of nations forever. The modern story could not depict Zeus or Poseidon fighting in battle without becoming a children's tale, but it didn't have to. The gods are there, channeled mainly by Achilles.
And all that is conveyed by the most unlikely of actors. It's funny how things work out sometimes, isn't it?

The character Priam, the king of Troy, is played by Peter O'Toole. Again, I am not sure who had the idea to cast O'Toole, but it was a very inspired decision. The secret meeting at night between Priam and Achilles is one of the highest emotional peaks of the movie, and it's not due to Pitt's flat, dismissive delivery. It's Peter O'Toole that carries the weight of the moment, with a presence and a spirit and a style that are all but forgotten by modern cinema. When put together, side by side, Peter O'Toole simply swallows and totally eclipses Brad Pitt as an actor. And it's all inside, a state of mind, a way of just being there and convey meaning and emotion and depth to the physical presence.

Sean Bean plays a flawless Ulysses. His character is exactly like Homer described him: cunning, politically able, down to earth. Very well realised, you can almost see the character of the Odyssey outsmarting, later on, the furious gods on his long journey home.

The movie delivers very well the whole meaningless tragedy of the war of Troy. It was set in motion by the thoughtless actions of rich playboy Paris (Orlando Bloom) and ends up destroying a center of civilization, culture and knowledge - Troy - at a time when civilization, culture and knowledge were struggling to emerge from chaos and darkness in the beginnings of human history. The warlords Agamemnon and Menelaus were probably just as cynical, cruel and obnoxious in reality as they were depicted in the movie - a detail shunned or glossed over by Homer. A lesson to take home for the modern world.

Like I said before, the movie is not a pure and faithful-to-the-letter translation of Homer's tale. In some places it is, but at times it takes quite a few liberties.
Achilles doesn't die after Troy is conquered, like the movie tells us, but actually way before that in the Iliad. The war doesn't last only a month or so, but it's actually a siege of ten years ending in a war of fifty days. Menelaus is not killed by Hector, but finds Helen and returns with her to Sparta. Agamemnon doesn't die either, not at Troy anyway, but only after his return home at the hands of Clytaemnestra and Aegisthus. Patrokles was not Achilles' cousin, but his friend and probably lover. Aeneas (who according to legend leads a group of wandering refugees over a few year's journey ending up as Rome's settlers) is not just a random boy in the crowd, but he's second in command after Hector. Briseis is not Hector's cousin.
And so on and so forth. The changes are small if the movie is regarded as a stand-alone story, but become important when put in the perspective of the whole body of legends surrounding the trojan war. Personally I didn't give them much importance.

So, that's that. An excellent movie, full of substance, worth seeing. Two thumbs up.

Next time, remind me not to listen to the "critics".