This is not the best historical moment for a hagiography of an overweening authoritarian populist. To his credit, director Ridley Scott appears to recognize the dangers. His new 158-minute epic “Napoleon” is about how the French leader’s vast and relentless ambition poisons his life, his country and ultimately all of Europe.
And yet, even as Scott deplores Napoleon’s grotesque hubris, he’s also clearly fascinated by it, and enjoys the opportunity it gives him for sweeping spectacle and Hollywood mythmaking. The movie is both a warning about our own populist gasbags and an object lesson in our media culture’s feckless enthusiasm for “big characters.”
Scott begins his story with the French Revolution in the late 18th century and the terror. Napoleon, played by Academy Award-winning actor Joaquin Phoenix, is a talented young officer whose military victories quickly vault him into influence and power. Early in the film, his stoic mien, boundless self-confidence and sweeping success, not to mention his personal bravery in battle, give him the glamour of a standard Hollywood action hero. You could be watching “Top Gun” or “Die Hard” with their dashing, mavericky, righteous protagonists fighting onward toward the inevitable raffish grin of victory.
Those early scenes glamorize Napoleon and are meant to show you the populist appeal that vaulted him to the leadership of the French. But Scott slowly reveals another, less attractive Napoleon, as Phoenix’s flinty features start to shift and pull and reveal themselves as the mask of a stuck-up man who likes to think of himself as having flinty features.
Napoleon sententiously insists he’s above “petty insecurities,” but his actions belie him. His relationship with his first wife Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby, is shot through with jealousy and farce. He’s too self-absorbed to be a sensitive lover; their bedroom scenes, with him grunting away while she looks indulgent but bored, are some of the movie’s funniest and most uncomfortable. Eventually, Napoleon casts his beloved Josephine aside because she can’t get pregnant. As self-crowned emperor, his vaunting sense of his own destiny demands an heir, even if that decision makes both him and Josephine miserable, without, ultimately, ensuring his dynasty.
The private Napoleon is ridiculous; the public one, it’s eventually clear, is a monster. His genius as a general is real — or at least it is until he starts to believe in it a little too fervently. In the latter half of his career, he consistently underestimates his opponents and leads his men to disaster because he won’t acknowledge setbacks or call for strategic retreats. Hundreds of thousands of his soldiers froze to death in the terrible Russian winter campaign of 1812. Napoleon was exiled to the island of Elba, and made one more grasp at power before being defeated once and for all by the British at the Battle of Waterloo. The film concludes with a final text screen that says that 3 million people died in Napoleon’s wars.
That’s a lot of death and misery to satisfy the ego of one silly man. Again, Scott knows as much, which is why he provides the audience with the death toll. But, at the same time, the movie wouldn’t exist if Scott weren’t fascinated with the silly man, and not least with the ego and the death.
Scott’s a filmmaker who loves dramatic visuals, and the scenes of battle are lush, gothic set pieces. The images of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz are particularly vivid; Napoleon lures the rival armies onto a frozen lake, which he then bombards, allowing Scott to show men and horses and blood sinking in slow motion beneath the frigid waters. Other sequences in the film show Napoleon simply nodding his head slightly to unleash a cavalry charge or a volley of cannon shot; the movie invites you to contemplate his power not as a cautionary tale, but as a nifty movie spectacle.
Even when Scott presents Napoleon as a dope, he’s a film-worthy dope. The coup against the Second Directory in 1799, which ended the last remnant of the Republic and elevated Napoleon to control of France, is portrayed as a barely competent exercise in slapstick. Napoleon ends up rolling around on the floor as he is attacked by middle-aged politicians, all the while bellowing with boisterous cowardice that they are trying to kill him. It’s not a portrait of a great leader. But it is entertaining and even charming.
A great man isn’t less great if he has feet of clay; the laughable moments and the failures are in many ways what make Napoleon in the film likable and watchable. A stoic, perfect Napoleon would be hard to take for two-and-a-half hours. Bumbling Napoleon who is bad at sex is a lot more fun.
The fact that Napoleon can’t live up to his own larger-than-life image is part of what makes Napoleon larger than life. That’s a dynamic that also benefits former President Donald Trump, our own would-be Napoleon.
There are obvious differences between Trump and Napoleon — Trump avoided the draft and was not a successful general; Napoleon was never elected and conquered large parts of Europe; Trump’s coup attempt was unsuccessful. Still, there are some recognizable similarities in populist leaders across the ages. Like Scott’s Napoleon, Trump’s endless self-puffery and self-regard make him a caricature of himself. But that doesn’t undercut his appeal. It magnifies it.
Trump has a weirdly orange complexion, writes social media posts in all caps and says ludicrous, outrageous things all the time in a way that’s so hyperbolic the media wants to turn it into a joke or a bit. On Veteran’s Day, for example, Trump echoed Nazi rhetoric in a ranting speech where he called his enemies “vermin.” The New York Times headline portrayed the incident as if it were a cute, funny blooper: “Trump Takes Veterans Day Speech in a Very Different Direction.” (The headline was quietly changed after criticism.)
Trump has benefited throughout his political career from the media’s fascination. In 2016, in his first campaign for president, according to data collected by mediaQuant, he received some $5.6 billion in earned media, as news channels covered his every speech and inane utterance, giving him a huge advantage in the Republican primary. Earlier this year, CNN hosted a town hall with the former president in which he lied constantly and slandered a woman that a jury found in a civil verdict that he had sexually abused (which Trump denies). The debacle drew the network’s largest primetime audience in almost a year.
Trump is currently the leading Republican presidential contender, so he’s of course going to be in the news. The voyeuristic, edge-of-the-seat, horserace tenor of much of the coverage, though, is a choice. “Napoleon” suggests that our fascination with grotesque populist windbags is itself a source of their power. We love stories of flawed giants whose fascinating flaw is that they think they’re bigger than they are.
If you wanted to really show Napoleon’s evil, you’d need to tell the story from the perspective of one of those poor soldiers he dragged across Europe to a shallow grave. If you wanted to show Napoleon’s emptiness and selfishness, you’d have to make a film called “Josephine.” But as long as you’re looking at the emperor — even if you’re ambivalently mocking the emperor — you’re honoring the emperor. Napoleon might not love this movie, but he’d surely enjoy seeing his face blown up there on the big screen.
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