Defending ‘Troy’

Defending ‘Troy’

When I was a kid and old enough to start appreciating movies, there was one reviewer in my local paper that I just hated. She never liked any movie that I thought was cool and I always felt contempt just oozing from the paper when she trashed the latest blockbuster with pithy statements that boiled my blood. Given that she was the only film critic in my city’s largest paper, her word carried weight, even though I was convinced she Just Didn’t Get It.

In the years since, I’ve still cultivated a sense that there’s only a handful of movie reviewers whose opinions are worth their weight. I don’t always agree with them, but I look forward to reading their insights into the latest screen fodder to creep out of Hollywood. No matter how much I hated that one critic as a kid, I had developed a sense that to review a movie was something of an intellectual enterprise: it helped that you understood film as a form of art and judged movies accordingly. What a cool way to make a living, I once thought, getting paid to see movies all day, even if you only wound up with couple of gems for every hundred movies inflicted on a helpless audience.

But of course, all that had changed because we live in the digital age where everyone with an opinion and a Web site has become an instant commentator on films, music, politics, art and all the other lowbrow stuff people find so exciting. That special cadre of film critics that I still hold in esteem has been surrounded by a growing chorus of voices that are all being jumbled together. Talk about needing to separate the wheat from the chaff! National magazine and newspaper critics are right next to critics of places I’ve never heard of, and after slogging through so many of them on Rotten, I’ve become convinced that very few of them can write. They’re mostly interested in making sure their opinion is Out There on the Internet, perhaps hoping to capture some of the momentum that other sites like have, and become a Web phenomena. This is a dream for many, because it means maybe they can quit their day jobs.

Like I said, the problem with all of these opinions is that many of them are not expressed very well, amd everyone is trying to out-bitch the other and come up with cynical posturing that passes for commentary. And to my dismay, I’ve noticed that many reviewers seem to be cribbing their reviews from others, a practice that probably pre-dates cyberspace, but did burn into my consciousness during the terrorist attack of May 1999 (known also as “Star Wars: Episode I: The Phantom Menace”) that separated innocent moviegoers from their money.

I poured through scores of almost universally negative reviews to see that everyone in cyberspace was using the word “patois” in reference to JarJar Binks method of speaking. That and the word “pidgin.” I found it difficult to believe that so many people knew these words and dropped them into their reviews so easily. It was then the true pitfalls of online movie reviewing sobered me up: reviewers of all stripes want to sound cultured and smart, because to do so means that ordinary people will count your opinion as being worth something. If you’re anything but cultured and smart, then why should people listen to you? And if you’re hopelessly not that cultured or smart, well then the best thing to do it fake it.

And that little point brings us to Wolfgang Petersen’s “Troy,” a film touted as a summer blockbuster that’s met with more mixed and negative reviews than it deserves. The strengths and weaknesses of the movie notwithstanding (more below), it struck me that so many of these critics were making passing references to Homer’s “great prose” and “sinewy perfection” as if they were intimately acquainted with “Iliad.” I think not.

It doesn’t matter if you never read “Iliad” or just grabbed the Cliff Notes in college to write that paper or pass that test. The source material is not required reading to enjoy the film, but when reviewers begin passing judgment on the celluloid version while hinting they understand the poem, an unsuspecting moviegoer (susceptible to a critic’s siren pan) might take their word for it and not know otherwise.

One culprit is a reviewer that I’ve always felt was a true film critic and had a sensitive, intellectual approach to movies: Roger Ebert. He groans that Achilles is played human, all too human, but had he bothered to read Bernard Knox’s inimitable introduction to Robert Fagels’ translation, he’d recognize that even though the great warrior is half-divine, it’s his humanity that finally comes out by the poem’s end, just in time for his impending doom. At the beginning of “Iliad”, Achilles is indeed a self-absorbed, moping and temperamental Bronze Age rock star (all of the gods are like that) but becomes transformed just enough to reclaim his humanity. Interpreting the character without conflict would have given us a one-dimensional Achilles who is neither good guy nor bad guy, and Brad Pitt plays the role with just enough nuance to make it believable.

But too many reviewers were fixated on how buffed Mr. Pitt appeared, rather than write a serious, thoughtful critique. That and the gay camp jokes. After all, why bother with analysis when you can talk about how hot everyone looks?

Wolfgang Petersen did, indeed, play fast and loose with the source material by the film’s final act, including the death of an important character that had my eyes rolling. (Warning, spoiler ahead.) But in the negative reviews of “Troy”, too much was made of Brian Cox’s Agamemnon as over the top or chewing too much scenery for comfort. Yet again, instead of focusing on the character and how it shored with Homer’s depiction, reviewers were content to bitch away and not put any meat on their bone of contention. Homer’s Agamemnon is truly a megalomaniac and a fool, who can’t even admit to his own mistakes because of overweening pride.

It’s the characterizations that Wolfgang Petersen got right in this version of Homer’s poem, making for a surprisingly textured movie. And it’s this context that reviewers should have focused on, rather than tired jokes about sword-and-sandal epics and the bizarre fixation on actress Diane Kruger’s lack of beauty: “She could have launched maybe a hundred ships, but not a thousand!” The irony of that oft-repeated criticism is that the line isn’t from Homer, but from Christopher Marlowe’s “Dr. Faustus.” I doubt that’s a point any of these reviewers actually knew.

The lack of the gods (with one brief exception) is a factor that makes Mr. Petersen’s film even more interesting, and an issue blithely noted by reviewers but quickly dropped. The denizens of Mount Olympus — who figure quite prominently for Homer — are absent in “Troy” but it actually works to great effect. Consider it this way: in all our of conflicts, we invoke God and depict him as being on our side. In “Troy,” the absence of divinity plays out a lot like real life, i.e., no matter how much invocation, the Supreme Being is silent about whose army he actually prefers. The gods might be in heaven, but the fighting and destruction are here on earth, and invoking them is a futile measure when men are certain to die. It’s a point nicely hinted at in a scene between Achilles and Briseus, portrayed in the film as a priestess of Apollo. While Achilles isn’t openly contemptuous over the gods, he’s not too impressed with them either. For him, as in the poem, the ugly business of war and conflict is the only reality because it creates immortals out of flesh and blood men. This is another reason why variations on how the battle will be remembered forever becomes a staple line in the film — a nice homage to the Greek chorus pointing out certain motifs to the audience, but met with exasperation by critics.

“Troy” is by no means a perfect film: the appearance of the famous Trojan horse that opens the movie’s final third feels forced, placed there more to bring the story to a close for audiences who need a definite beginning, middle and end. (It’s not even recounted in “Iliad” but in “Odyssey.”) The most clever moment is done in passing, when Paris (Orlando Bloom) asks one man his name before dispatching him to take the fleeing citizens of Troy to a new home. “Aeneas,” replies the man, thus neatly tying the poet Virgil’s recounting of the founder of Rome as a refugee from the sack of Troy. A nice touch to a film that deserves better from thoughtful analysis rather than fey bitching.

So if you’re going to the movies this summer, remember to narrow your list of critics, ignore the inane cacophony of online movie reviewers, and enjoy yourself.