In Review: 'Napoleon,' 'Maestro'
Two outsized personalities get extravagant, daring, almost-but-not-quite-entirely-successful biopics.
Dir. Ridley Scott
There’s an asterisk that should be applied to Napoleon that’s become maddeningly routine with director Ridley Scott, who will often release one cut of his films for theaters and a longer, superior cut for home video. (Notable exception: Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut, which comes in slightly shorter.) Scott has already announced that a four-hour-and-change version of Napoleon will be released on Apple TV+ once the film finally debuts on the platform, which means about an hour-and-a-half will be added to the current cut. That’s significantly longer than the most obvious comp in Scott’s filmography, Kingdom of Heaven, and so we almost have to accept as a matter of faith that it will clarify and deepen this action-packed 157-minute abridgment.
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And so, when I complain in a minute about the oddly elliptical quality of Napoleon and how it zips along from one expensive-seeming battle set piece after another with only the thinnest of connective tissue, that may be a problem that will be solved in 90-plus additional minutes. Beyond being a massive filing headache over which cut is the real version of Napoleon, it might also affect the general thrust of Scott’s portraiture, which here suggests Bonaparte as a warmongering simpleton whose strategic genius on the battlefield belies the narrowness of his thinking off it. Surely Apple TV+ subscribers will learn more about his more intimate behind-the-scenes moments, but until then, we can only extrapolate from what we can see now, which is a thin but generously entertaining epic that carries itself with surprising lightness.
Teaming with Scott for the first time since his scene-stealing performance as the extravagantly sadistic Commodus in Gladiator, Joaquin Phoenix sets the tone with a Bonaparte whose lusts are as plain as his resentments. Introduced as an ambitious gunnery officer who never quite shakes his image as a Corsican “brute,” Bonaparte impresses his superiors in the 1793 Siege of Toulon, when he devises a plan to scale the British defenses and then use the enemy’s own cannons to wipe out their fleet below. (Later, he petulantly utters one of the film’s two instantly quotable lines: “You’re think you’re so great because you have boats!”) His social skills are less deft, but his enhanced reputation puts him in a position to meet Josephine (Vanessa Kirby), a woman recently freed from prison after the Reign of Terror.
The spicy marriage between Bonaparte and Josephine, with its odd sexual peccadilloes and reports of infidelity, have an outsized impact on Bonaparte’s decision-making as military commander and eventual emperor of France. At one point, news of Josephine’s affair, after weeks of unanswered love letters, causes him to abandon his troops in Egypt in order to rush back home. But there’s a prevailing sense here that Bonaparte’s ravenous impulses as a conqueror are tied to his diminished self-image—as if he has, you know, some sort of Napoleon complex. His cuckoldry left millions dead.
Scott and Phoenix’s sense of humor about their tragically dim-witted Bonaparte is a welcome and tonally daring aspect of Napoleon, in keeping with the even wilder ribaldry of Scott’s under-appreciated 2021 romp The Last Duel. It’s also a reminder of how much personal, petty grievances can drive the larger forces of history—like, say, a particularly stinging joke told on the dais at the 2011 White House Correspondents Dinner. Scott handles the action sequences with typical aplomb, each with their distinguishing features, like cannonballs cracking the ice underneath the Austrians and Russians in the Battle of Austerlitz or the humiliation dealt to Bonaparte in Moscow in 1812. But it’s Phoenix’s dumb, lonely, tempestuous Bonaparte who proves the bigger spectacle, an icon who’s even smaller than he appears through Scott’s lens. — Scott Tobias
Napoleon opens today in theaters everywhere.
Dir. Bradley Cooper
To watch footage of Leonard Bernstein conducting is to see an artist in thrall to the performance he was helping create. Bernstein lets the emotions flow across his face as he guides his orchestra with a firm hand and a gentle touch. Conducting was, by all appearances, less a job than an emotional journey for Bernstein, who ascended to stardom in 1943 at the age of 25 after being called upon to fill in for the New York Philharmonic’s ailing guest conductor at the last moment. The triumphant performance that followed became a front-page news story for The New York Times and helped make Bernstein nothing less than the face of classical music in America (to say nothing of his work as a composer) until his death in 1990.
Maestro, Bradley Cooper’s dual biopic of Bernstein and his wife Felicia Montealegre (Carey Mulligan)—for which Cooper serves as director, co-writer (with Josh Singer), and star—opens with the phone call that brings Bernstein to that moment, almost as if anything that happened before didn’t matter. Similarly, the film introduces Montealegre at the party where she’s introduced to Bernstein. Their eyes lock and light up in instant recognition, even though they’ve never seen each other before. In a later conversation they bond after describing themselves as “composite” people, a collection of facets that add up to a whole.And, in a sense, they remain inseparable even when separated over the course of the decades-spanning film.
Maestro is, in essence, their love story but love stories between composite people are bound to be complicated. Montealegre claims from the start that she understands who Bernstein is and, it’s implied, that his passions won’t be contained within their marriage. A moment in which Bernstein grins as he tells the infant child of David Oppenheim (Matt Bomer) and his wife (Judy Holliday in real life, though she goes unnamed here) that he slept with both their parents neatly shorthands a lot of drama that mostly plays out off screen.
It’s also a film about how difficult, and occasionally defeating, it can be to sustain a love story over time. Working again with his A Star is Born cinematographer Matthew Libatique, Cooper divides the film in two. Shot in sparkling black-and-white, the opening section mimics the look of golden-age Hollywood and so, quite frequently, does its form. Bernstein and Montealegre trade witty lines at a pace that matches their manic drive and the metronome-paced dialogue of classic comedies and, in a few moments, reality gives way to fantasy (even, at one point, a kind of dream ballet). After a time jump, this transitions to muted colors and more halting exchanges, as the wear-and-tear of Bernstein and Montealegre’s relationship threatens its structural integrity.
Cooper’s second directorial effort often seems as if it’s attempting to sustain the intensity of a Bernstein performance across the length of its running time. It sometimes suffers from the effort. An argument set against the backdrop of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade as seen from the windows of Bernstein and Montealegre’s apartment, for instance, is remarkably well-staged. But it’s also a big moment in need of more small moments leading up to it. Cooper and Mulligan both deliver remarkable performances, but they also have to do a lot of work filling the blanks left by a film that wants to dazzle with almost every scene, only rarely stopping to take a breath. Still, Maestro does dazzle, and spectacularly when it counts, like a recreation of Bernstein conducting Mahler’s second symphony in England’s Ely Cathedral in 1974 that beautifully ties the drama of the music with the lives of those driven to serve it, composite people who construct themselves note by note. —Keith Phipps
Maestro is in limited theaters today and will debut on Netflix on December 20th.