Dir. Wolfgang Petersen. Starring Brad Pitt, Eric Bana, Rose Byrne
One of my least favorite games to play, maybe because it’s too easy or maybe because it reminds me of horoscopes, is deciding how a movie is a “movie of the moment.” It is not merely enough for a film to be of its own time—deciding on how relevant it is somehow matters, as if relevance were an objective measure or meant something beyond “most transparent corollary to the political climate when the film was released (and not even when the film was made)” to critics. Our interest in relevance means that a movie which happens to have something to do with its time and place quickly becomes swallowed up by them. What will become of Selma, Moonlight, and Get Out? I have a strange feeling that a decade from now, we’ll read a thinkpiece about how relevant each of them still is without seriously revisiting the quality of three of the better American movies from the past decade. The lovely thing is about movies is that they change with us as we change as viewers; I can think of few items of faint praise more damning than “this is the movie we need now,” with all its implications that we won’t need it later. A movie is not guacamole that’s been left out too long. It will keep, and who knows that it won’t be better later than it is now?
That’s one heck of a sermon to lead into a movie review of Troy, but here we are.
Troy, the story of many muscly men doing deeds, is certainly more interesting now than it was after its release. While watching it recently, I found myself considering all of the below, ordered here from most mundane to most interesting:
- Troy is a solid genre flick with a workable cast and erratic direction.
- Troy dabbles in the homoerotic qualities practically inherent in a swords-and-sandals movie without ever making a hard play in that direction, ultimately pivoting to an oppressively patriarchal vision of women.
- Troy fits into a larger genre study of recently popular/acclaimed movies with epic battle scenes, beginning with Braveheart.
- Troy is an interesting thematic study on immortality and our obsession with it, whatever the price, though it never seriously questions our desire for it.
- Troy is a statement on the invasion of Iraq, with regard to the rapidly failing leadership of George W. Bush.
- Troy is a forerunner to Game of Thrones, the last monolith TV program, and expresses most of the ideologies of that program.
- Troy meditates on star culture by using Brad Pitt, the ’30s Clark Gable of the ’00s, as its centerpiece.
Let’s take them in order.
1. Troy is a solid genre flick…
Stretches of this movie are essentially vacant. Eric Bana, Brian Cox, Diane Kruger, Orlando Bloom, and Garrett Hedlund are unpredictable. (It is worth saying that this is a cast that, excepting Peter O’Toole, probably would have been better three to five years after they were called together for Troy.) Either they are reasonably good in a scene or they are non-entities, which is a problem when the human element is forced to anchor a movie that relies otherwise on CGI violence. (The CGI violence is okay, I guess, as far as that goes.) It’s also a problem when this human element makes up something like 75% of the named cast. Orlando Bloom’s largely wordless performance as Menelaus (Brendan Gleeson) beats him in a duel is probably the best part of the movie for him; the gilded pronunciations of love and empty statements of responsibility don’t fly particularly well from Bloom’s lips, but watching him hang on to Eric Bana’s ankles seems quite real. Brian Cox never seems quite sure where he is, unable to build up anything like menace for a character who could stand to have more than bombast to lean on. Garrett Hedlund’s twitching jaw is not a substitute for acting. Even Bana can’t always be relied on, even though he has the best role. Too frequently his scenes bob along on a feeling we’re supposed to have—sympathy for his family is a winner—and he cannot carry us on. Pitt is good, mostly. Not much is expected from Rose Byrne, but she is spot-on; the same can be said for Gleeson. Peter O’Toole, as Priam, probably delivers the best performance of anyone in the movie, although Sean Bean as a primarily wily Odysseus could give him a run for his money. The overall effect is that the blood-letting is probably the most consistently interesting part of the movie, bound up as it often is in one-on-one fight scenes that have been edited together well. The conversations, which occur with striking regularity on predictable themes, are far from unanimously useful.
2. Troy dabbles in the homoerotic…
To the best of my knowledge—I’m not sure it’s even implied—none of the guys in this movie have sex with one another. Achilles and Patroclus are frequently interpreted as lovers, though one can hardly dismiss the scholarship of Ancient Greece which would argue that the two of them have a bond of chaste male friendship par excellence. The film casts Patroclus as a younger cousin of Achilles, one learning from his more able relative about the world as well as swordplay, and Patroclus’ death is just about the only thing which can bring Achilles back into the fight once he’s made it clear that he’s waiting for one heck of an apology from Agamemnon. The movie does not turn Achilles’ strong protective feelings about Patroclus, or Patroclus’ adulation of Achilles, into the next step. One might argue that Odysseus and Achilles would make a better couple, as Achilles respects Odysseus as something like an equal and will listen to his advice. All the same, the movie doesn’t give us much to work with there, either. The two of them always meet outside a tent, in full view where no one could accuse them of canoodling.
Even if Troy has enough images of heaving muscles and beefy boys to create a gay classic, it absolutely does not want us to think about them. I don’t know how you don’t when Priam hands over the Sword of Troy to Paris and the two of them sort of revel in its placement and historical strength. The phallic imagery of swords goes back an awfully long time, and one feels like Petersen gets it but at the same time is not trying to make you get it. Achilles finds his Briseis, a woman he protects from rape on at least two occasions because he doesn’t want anyone’s sloppy seconds. (The movie goes out of its way to show that Achilles would not have to have sex with a girl already deflowered: he rescues her from a group of randy and abusive soldiers after Agamemnon, saying, “I haven’t touched the girl,” has passed her on to them.) Hector is the model of a family man, going out to work in the morning and coming home to his wife and baby every night. Paris opens up, in the beginning of the movie, a really interesting box which seems profoundly regressive. In our first scene with Bloom and Kruger, she tells him not tonight, last night was a mistake. Was the night before that a mistake too? Paris responds. And the night before that? (One can hear David Benioff saying, “Oh, snap!” to himself as he typed up that little gem.) Despite knowing that running away with a Trojan prince will probably cause a major international incident, Helen goes with Paris anyway. The most flattering interpretation is the one that the movie tries to give her: she has been a prisoner, essentially, of Menelaus and Sparta for her adult life, and seizes the first chance she gets to run away. The least flattering interpretation is that she is in thrall to whatever kind of loving Paris is providing, and I’m inclined, given Achilles’ relationship with Briseis, to think that one is more compelling.
Briseis, made into Hector and Paris’ virgin cousin for the purposes of the film, is captured when Achilles sacks a temple of Apollo on the first day of battle. She gives up her vow of chastity after being in Achilles’ tent for a day or so, but then Achilles chokeslams her when he finds out about Patroclus’ death. Some smacking later, she also finds out that Achilles has killed her cousin Hector in combat essentially out of spite. At this point, Briseis has lost a cousin, almost like a brother, to this foreign soldier who has led the invasion of the city where she has lived her whole life, and he has beaten her up on a couple of occasions. What does she do when Paris, armed with a bow, sees Achilles? She does just what you would expect if you think that women are won over irrevocably by the power of a good lay: she begs Paris not to shoot. In a movie filled with puzzling moments, this is almost certainly the most cringeworthy.
3. Troy fits into a larger genre study…
The sexual politics of Troy are deeply unfortunate, but they cannot be said to be unexpected. In 2004, when Troy was released, it was merely the newest entry into the world of the bloody national epic thrust forward by Braveheart in 1995, Gladiator and The Patriot in 2000, the Lord of the Rings series from 2001-03, and King Arthur and Alexander alongside Troy in 2004. Kingdom of Heaven was released in 2005, followed by 300 in 2006, at which point these sort of blockbusters yielded more frequently to comic book movies and CGI masterpieces. All of them, with varying degrees of success, use violent battle sequences on massive scales to push along a political narrative. 300 is arguably the most successful of the bunch because it finds a way to put the politics into the first few minutes before yielding over entirely to the incarnadine Battle of Thermopylae. Each of these movies is reliant on sexy, built men in revealing costume doing some hacking and spearing and punching and so on, and once again we can see the evolution. Braveheart does not want us to forget that Mel Gibson has pretty eyes as well as big arms. 300 could not care less what color someone’s eyes are, and would in fact have preferred to replace its actors’ eyes with more six-packs. Likewise meaningful, if not necessarily important to the plot, is a babe or two who can grease the wheels of interest for the presumably pubescent male audience. Once again there is some movement on that front, from the clearly adult Sophie Marceau and Connie Nielsen in the earlier movies to a teenaged Keira Knightley’s bare midriff in the mid-2000s. This is not a run of movies that I find terribly appealing in the aggregate, though if I were to pass judgment on Troy among them I might even say that it is the most bloody national epic movie of them all. (Is there an actual term for this? Can we call it the “swordbody” genre? I think that sort of says it all for me.) It borrows heavily from the cast of Braveheart, returning Brendan Gleeson, Brian Cox, and James Cosmo to speaking parts. It is long, it has a B/B- director at the helm, it is filled with movie stars, there are a bunch of melee battles, and it takes place a long time ago.
4. Troy is an interesting thematic study…
From the very beginning, practically, Troy is presented as a glimpse into the lives of people whose names have rung throughout time. (The opening narration, which I didn’t actually need, presents this point of view.) Achilles’ famous first battle in the movie is fought against Boagrius (Nathan “Rictus Erectus” Jones), the Thessalonian giant who is done in with a single leaping strike from Achilles’ sword. But before that, a little boy is dispatched to find Achilles, covered in naked women, and bring him to the front. I would be scared to fight that man you’re about to fight, the boy says to Achilles as he gets on his horse. That is why no one will remember your name, Achilles replies, and the kid literally shrivels up and dies. This is the movie’s central thesis: if no one remembers your name, then what have you done, really?
From then on, Achilles makes speeches about this kind of thing to just about anyone who will listen, sometimes lapsing into a fatalistic “gotta die someday” point of view in an attempt to justify any number of risks which might lead to a more glorious victory. Agamemnon clearly sees the conquest of Greece and whatever else he can get his paws on as a way to stand up to the tides of time. Occasionally you’ll hear Odysseus or Patroclus or Paris get in a few words which imply that they too understand what it will mean to live forever in the minds of future generations. Predictably, given the patriarchal politics of the movie, living forever means killing and fighting and nation-building. It does not mean fatherhood. In fact, the movie even goes out of its way to show that being a good father or a good husband will consign you to be forgotten! In a scene which sort of comes and goes, Thetis (Julie Christie), Achilles’ mother, tells her son what she sees for his future. He might stay home and be a father with a loving wife and loving children and grandchildren, forgotten within a few generations. Or he might go to war and be remembered for thousands of years. The choice is obvious to Achilles and to the moviemakers alike: be remembered. Be famous. But the choice is not obvious to us! What’s so bad about being a good father and living a happy life with people who love you? The movie has no answer for this—I would argue that there probably isn’t a good answer for this—and never seeks to find one. It is obvious to Troy that Achilles, secretly haunted by the faces of the many, many men he has killed, should go on killing in a war he doesn’t believe in as a way to achieve a personal fulfillment that will escape him entirely and only be able to signify to people after he is dead. Not even Odysseus, usually the smart one, is able to puncture the holes in this bloated and arrogant philosophy. He speaks the final words of the movie, saying that he is glad to have lived in the days of people like Hector and Achilles, who will be remembered for all time.
5. Troy is a statement on the invasion…
I don’t have a lot to say about this one because I think it more or less speaks for itself; I also generally dislike the tiresome activity of matching up historical events to fictional ones and sanding down the edges of both in order to make them fit together better. All the same, it is difficult to watch a movie from 2004 which uses the power-hungry blustering of a know-nothing king as a spur for its action and not think of George W. Bush. On the first day, we even have a “Mission Accomplished” moment, as Agamemnon reads the fall of the Trojan beach as Day One of a campaign of just two days and begins to accept gifts and congratulations for what he assumes is a fait accompli. Above all, I think, is the undercurrent of “What is this for, exactly?” which runs through the fighting. No one except for Agamemnon, Hector, and maybe a few of Agamemnon’s close advisors, seem to know the real reason for fighting. It has nothing to do with returning Helen to Menelaus, but everything with extending the overseas empire of a man who can never have enough. The movie, which treats realpolitik like it’s some arcane formula—the film “reveals” that Agamemnon is not fighting the greatest war of all time for his brother’s honor, a fact which would be transparent even to a child who had never heard of the Iliad—at least has the willingness to argue that it may not be an unquestioned good.
6. Troy is a forerunner to Game of Thrones…
Here’s the one I’ve been building up to. David Benioff, at that point best known for writing The 25th Hour, wrote the screenplay for Troy. He is best known to people now for being one of the showrunners of Game of Thrones, which puts Troy into a much clearer perspective. This is the forerunner. Ironically, Odysseus is probably the character who would be most successful if you dropped him into the Game of Thrones universe, although everyone would have to get over his uncanny resemblance to Ned Stark. Odysseus is not only clever, but he understands when to cut his losses and when to press onward; he has a nimble gift for self-preservation either in conversation with Achilles or when he is attacking the walls of Troy. But just about everyone else—Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Paris—would have been fishbait by the end of Season 3. Many of the trappings of Game of Thrones, aside from the remarkable casualty rate, are here as well. The show and the movie don’t quite know what to do with a woman who isn’t egregiously naked, nor does it know what to do about homosexuals. Troy is also just as white as Game of Thrones, though the actors in Troy have better tans. (If there is a saving grace to this blinding whiteness, it is that no people of color crowdsurf their white savior.)
The ideology of Game of Thrones is essentially do whatever you can to get ahead and make no apologies for doing so. Those who understand that live. Those who do not understand it, or who come to believe that they are basically safe from the machinations of the world because of their power, die. Hector seals his fate when he tells his archers to lower their bows when Achilles rides up solo in his chariot. Paris puts sex ahead of safety. Agamemnon’s arrogance, combined with his inability to solve his problems without the swords of thousands of soldiers to back him up, means Daenerys would have set him on fire at some point. Of the decision makers in the movie, he understands the uses and importance of power the best, though he fails to understand that the little people can rise up against him at any time. Priam, to me, is the worst offender of this principle. Twice he is given a chance to make a sound strategic choice, and twice he spits in the face of an intelligent choice because of some religious omen. That becomes an especially costly vice for him to have when he decides to attack the Greeks near their boats. Hector makes a series of good points, arguing that the Greeks are splintering and that attacking them will unify their spirit, that the Trojan archers will not be able to support the soldiers, that the walls of Troy will protect their people indefinitely. Priam decides to listen to a priest who believes that the Greeks have lost the favor of the gods and will be easily crushed. The indirect consequences of Priam’s decision based on his superstition? The death of his firstborn son and the fall of Troy.
7. Troy meditates on star culture…
Less than a year after Troy premiered, Brad Pitt left Jennifer Aniston for Angelina Jolie. Until the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, it was probably the biggest celebrity story of my lifetime. Perhaps it seems quaint now, but there was a time when just about everyone had an opinion on who was better for Brad Pitt, who was most responsible for him leaving, which “team” was the right one to be on, etc. What might have been a generic People and Us Weekly scandal a decade before was amplified by the fact that the Internet was now a reasonably decent place to begin expressing opinions, which fanned the flames of the power couple fallout. Pitt, as I recall, managed to get out of that briar patch without too many scars. He was still fairly young, still very good-looking, and he was transitioning from an interesting performer to someone reinventing himself as a potential action movie powerhouse. One of the best proofs I can give of his universality was the fact that I knew who he was. I was not particularly interested in movies at that time, nor did I care much for celebrity gossip. But Pitt I knew. Pitt I even saw in theaters once, when I went to Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The comparison I want to make for him in the 2000s is Clark Gable in the ’30s, when both men, the paragons of Hollywood masculinity, had paid their dues doing interesting if smaller-scale projects and were now graduating to the big time. If Pitt were ever to take on Gone with the Wind, it would have been with Troy.
Troy is about stardom, too, as much as it’s about immortality or patriarchy. Achilles, like Pitt, is nothing short of the biggest star in the world in Troy. Emblematic of a culturally understood perfection, no one wants to go where he will not lead. Achilles, for all of his bickering with Agamemnon, enjoys being at the center of attention. Waiting in his tent for Agamemnon to come around and beg for him to return to the battlefield is sort of like an actor returning to his trailer until the director apologizes, which is probably not an intended connection but is amusing nonetheless. He is universally famous, known to everyone for his distinctive armor and for his graceful loping stride. Eudorus (Vincent Regan), Achilles’ second-in-command, is fooled by Patroclus when the youth puts on Achilles’ armor. “He even moved like you,” Eudorus laments, intimating what we know about a star and his/her posture, looks, fashion. Wearing Achilles’ signature armor and running in Achilles’ easy but purposeful style, Patroclus can pass for the star himself until it comes down to the screen test. It helps that Hedlund is a generic Pitt, of course, which speaks to our own intuitions about stars: they can be imitated, but never recreated. What Patroclus lacks is authenticity, in the end, which is one of the keys to our understanding of any star. For Achilles, his authenticity is in the pretty efficiency of his fighting, the way he wins every battle and kills every man with style. His signature move is a jumping stab at right angles to his target. His technique with a long spear is balletic as well; he twists his body backwards in a reverse crescent while he threatens Hector with a spear, snakelike, over his spear. Other characters kill well enough, but Achilles, the great star of the Greeks, does it with style. It’s his way of earning the fame.