Earlier in the year, Martin Scorsese gave an interview in which he made a heartbreaking and sobering statement. Namely that he’s nearing the end of his life and career, and he feels as if he’s only just now starting to see the potential of cinema as an art form. Just last week, fellow octogenarian Ridley Scott was asked about his feelings on Scorsese’s statement, as well as his thoughts on the fleeting nature of time. He too is ostensibly reaching the end of his career. His response was very on brand:
“Since he (Scorsese) started Killers of the Flower Moon I’ve made 4 films. No, I don’t think about it. I get up in the morning & say: ‘Ah great! Another day of stress.’”
Does it get any better than that? Ridley Scott is a workhorse. Always has been. He knows how to get a movie across the finish line and he knows how to deliver a solid product. He has made so many stone cold classics that he holds an irrevocable forever pass. I don’t know how it’s even possible for him to pump out movies at such a clip during his golden years, but if that’s what it takes to keep his wonderful heart beating, then so be it. I hope he never stops (unless he wants to — again, he’s earned it).
But here’s the thing. Killers of the Flower Moon is cinematic perfection. It’s one of Scorsese’s absolute best, and it shows further refinement of his already masterful skills, as well as some notable directorial flourishes that indicate a filmmaker trying to go beyond his limits. It’s absolutely remarkable in every way. A true all-timer that will assuredly find its way into the library of congress.
Napoleon, on the other hand, is pretty good.
The lesson being that sometimes, more isn’t better than great. It’s just more. Yeah, Napoleon is pretty good, The Last Duel is very good, House of Gucci is a blast, and All the Money in the World is a movie, but none are all-timers — and when Ridley Scott makes an all-timer, which he has multiple times before, it’s a cause for celebration. As I type this review I am living a metaphor to the point I’m making: I just got done at my day job (writing about movies is not very lucrative, unfortunately), and I am exhausted. To borrow parlance from my friend (Hi Scott), I am wiped like a butt. And frankly, the quality of this review reflects that. Today I was tasked with doing too much, and since we live in a a hellscape of eternal material acquisition, my time must go to whatever pays best. And here at the end of my work day I am doing my best to give you something, anything, about Napoleon, a decent enough movie that simply did not stick with me.
But I know how to get a review done. I know how to make it readable. I know how to give you exactly what is required. Nothing more, nothing less. I wish I could do more, but I’m just so fucking tired.
And that’s how Napoleon feels to me. It feels like Ridley Scott knowing exactly how to make a movie exist, function, and look sharp. But in the case of his epic historical biopic, instead of feeling like something new and transcendent (Joaquin Phoenix as Napoleon Bonaparte?!? Historical accuracy getting thrown out the window in exchange for badassery?!? WHAT COULD GO WRONG?!?), it feels remarkably boilerplate. If you told me any other filmmaker with access to a big enough budget made this movie, I would believe you. There is very little about Napoleon that feels specifically like Ridley Scott made it.
This isn’t to say that it requires an auteurial stamp per se, but the final product smells faintly of missed opportunity. I hear there’s a four hour director’s cut coming down the pipeline which will likely soften my disappointment — but even with Scott’s history of superior director’s cuts, its a bit of a cop out. I already spent nearly three hours on this thing and you want me to do it again?? And for a lot longer?!? I’ve got low-class slashers to rewatch!
Anywho, despite my deflating lead-up, Napoleon is still a solid flick. The aim here is to give us a broad recreation of the life and times of Napoleon Bonaparte, from his meager origins as a military commander, through his ascension into the role of emperor, and eventually to his end spent in dishonor and exile. And that’s exactly what we get. Phoenix is fantastic, as is expected, and he is surrounded by an exceptional supporting cast, including Vanessa Kirby as Josephine, Napoleon’s poor, poor wife, and Rupert Everett as the Duke of Wellington (the role he was born to play, really). Phoenix employs a physicality that morphs in tandem with Bonaparte’s ever-shifting personality. At the outset he stands tall and proud, ready to ascend the ranks of his chosen career path (is that what it was called back then?). By the end he’s the sniveling, small little bitch that we all know from a long line of caricatures. No, Phoenix is not placed under heaps of prosthetic makeup, nor does he borrow a rotund bodysuit from Darren Aronofsky — its a much more subtle transformation, created by the way he carries himself. He wears the years on his face and on his shoulders in a way that only Phoenix could (I should note that there’s likely plenty of makeup involved, but its not a big todo).
The battle sequences are top notch, even though they’re, again, pretty standard. They are indeed quite exciting on both a micro and macro level, and staged in such a way that we can understand the game-changing nature of Napoleon’s art of combat. The film sings loudest in these moments, as the battles tell so much more about the titular figure than the more low-key, dialogue-based scenes which connect these high points. It also left me with a distinct fear of cannonballs. I never wanna catch a cannonball to any part of my body, nor would I want the horse I’m riding on the catch one, even though I’d rather die than ever ride a horse. Terrifying stuff.
One unexpected aspect of Napoleon is how funny it is. Even though the ground being covered in the non-battle areas of the script is nothing new (see: history being written by egotistical weenies), an odd tension is found between Napoleon’s ego and basically everyone else in the movie. This is at first used for bits of character-forward comedy, but soon becomes a tool to exhibit how small of a man Napoleon was, despite his gigantic historical legacy.
And I mean small as in the scope of his soul, not in stature. He was apparently a normal-sized man, caricatures be damned.
The fact of the matter is this: Napoleon is, by every metric, a very good movie, but it could have, and should have, been capital-G GREAT. God bless Ridley Scott for continuing to entertain us with handsome, exciting films. When he’s ready to do his Killers of the Flower Moon, I’ll be here for it. But until then I guess I’ll be working my way through the director’s cut of Napoleon.
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by David Scarpa
Starring Joaquin Phoenix, Vanessa Kirby, Tahar Rahim, Rupert Everett
Rated R, 158 minutes