Winner '00:
First Saw It:
May 24, 2000, at the Hoyts Pyramid Mall in Ithaca, NY
Bridesmaids: Chocolat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Erin Brockovich, Traffic
My Vote: I've long said Crouching Tiger, but is my heart really with Erin Brockovich?
Overlooked: Dancer in the Dark, Ghost Dog, You Can Count on Me, Before Night Falls

Director: Ridley Scott. Cast: Russell Crowe, Joaquin Phoenix, Connie Nielsen, Oliver Reed, Richard Harris, Djimon Hounsou, Ralf Moeller, Derek Jacobi, David Hemmings, David Schofield, John Shrapnel, Tomas Arana, Spencer Treat Clark, Tommy Flanagan, Sven-Ole Thorsen, Giannina Facio, Giorgio Cantarini. Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson.

Photo © 2000 DreamWorks SKG/Universal Pictures
In its beginning sequences, Ridley Scott's Gladiator, has several things going for it: visual resplendence, a big budget, an adrenalizing premise, a haunting cameo by Richard Harris, a slithery supporting turn from Joaquin Phoenix, and a hefty, impassioned star turn from Russell Crowe. By its final scene, Gladiator really has one thing going for it: Crowe, Crowe, Crowe. Everything else around him has contracted, overreached, grown confusing, or gotten distracted from itself, but he still can't help suggesting that he should star in every contemporary drama about a hotheaded man equipped with deceptively firm moral resolve. Crowe is not only Gladiator's key asset, he is one of Hollywood's precious few leading men of real value, and he redeems this whole film, which isn't bad by any stretch, into some semblance of art. Don't fool yourself into thinking Gladiator is as good as it looks, but also don't underestimate the persuasive, compensatory power of the right actor in the right role.

Gladiator isn't a true story, but it sometimes feels like one, for a few reasons. First, Ridley Scott has clearly thrown himself into this project in a way that none of his projects since Blade Runner has really allowed. Even the estimable Thelma & Louise didn't capitalize on Scott's signature gift for realizing distant or imaginary worlds in remarkably striking, precise detail. Gladiator, whose makers have obviously seen Braveheart and Saving Private Ryan a few times, opens with a battle sequence that shows the Romans and the Goths of around two millennia ago squaring off in a forest. Flaming arrows are shooting through trees, great clods of mud and snow are flying toward the camera, metal is clanging horribly on metal—if you're a junky for visceral combat scenes, you can stop reading and buy your ticket. The sequence's only major flaw is that its cutting is too quick and jumbled—editor Pietro Scalia seems to think he's still working on JFK—to clarify the geographical relationships between the different batallions of soldiers.

It's easy to represent chaos by editing chaotically, but Scalia's sloppiness in this instance bears a particularly a great liability: though we're meant to learn from this fight that the Roman general Maximus (Crowe) is a brilliant military strategist, we have a hard time doing that because we can't see what he's organized. We do know, however, that the Romans won, though both sides suffered catastrophically, and Harris, cutting a creepily skeletal figure as the dying emperor Marcus Aurelius, wants Maximus to take over the Empire as a sort of interim leader until the Senate can finalize plans for a new democratic regime. Maximus wants out of the government and the military, preferring to return to his wife, his son (Life Is Beautiful's Giorgio Cantarini), and his farm. Even more nonplussed by Marcus's decision is his son Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix), whose father rightly thinks he is a larva in Caesar's clothing. When Commodus smothers Marcus in his tent and seizes power, his first move is to have Maximus's wife and child defiled and killed. Maximus himself, finding his family in this state after sneaking home, is easily captured and thrown into a training camp for the recently revived gladiatorial combats in Rome, where everyone who knows he's still alive assumes he will quickly perish.

The second reason Gladiator might seem realistic, then, is because it mish-mashes historical figures like Marcus Aurelius into its pulpy historical fiction. Even more persuasive, at least for the most part, are the elaborately constructed sets of Maximus's farm, the slave labor camp where he is indentured, the training camps, and many of the locales of Rome itself. Too bad the Colosseum and its crowds, which should be the coup de grāce of the film's scenography, looks so conspicuously computer-generated in John Mathieson's aerial establishing shots. The peril of an electronically-enhanced epic like this is that one unconvincing graphic punctures the whole illusion, and Gladiator too often conjures, instead of the spectacle of ancient Rome, the less romantic image of hordes of digital matte artists struggling to add dimension and texture to the cityscapes.

From this point forward, Gladiator knows the suspense game is largely up. We know Maximus will duke it out in the arena as long as it takes to at least get within striking distance of Commodus; even if he pulls a Spartacus and winds up hanging from a cross, we've got a good hour and a half between his recruitment by combat trainer Proximo (the late Oliver Reed) and the start of the next showing. Also, since Phoenix makes Commodus' depravity so abundantly obvious, we know he won't be changing his tune. The actor's approach to the role is interesting, but it leaves him nowhere to go. The only variety of tension Gladiator can devise, then, is not whether Maximus will survive repeated ordeals against tigers, mace-swinging giants, or fellow gladiators, but how he will do so, and Scott throws us repeatedly into the inches of space between Crowe and his rotating cycle of opponents.

Keep in mind, though, that Gladiator wants to be taken seriously as a sort of moral tract. Not only are the senators, led by Derek Jacobi's Gracchus, clearly preferable to Commodus, the incestuously lustful autocrat (he wants his father's power and his sister's body!), but Crowe gets several opportunities to proclaim loudly against sensationalizing violence and enjoying human brutality and injury as entertainment. Unfortunately, as Gladiator gets longer and more plot-heavy, Scott relies more on more on the bloody goings-on in the Colosseum to keep the audience interested. Sure, it seems like an obvious pot-shot to slam Gladiator for exploiting the same violence it pretends to condemn, but the film doesn't offer any coherent alternative way to understand it: it doesn't comment on its violence, and it doesn't spare us any brutality in its images. The only thing the film can say is that we've always been drawn to this sort of barbarous theater: we were in ancient Rome, we were in the 1950s and 1960s when these pictures reached their apex, and we are now. A worthy point—but not a new one.

Meanwhile, Connie Nielsen hangs around as Lucilla, the imperial sister fending off her brother's advances. She is also Maximus' onetime lover (we don't know from when, or why they broke up), and she goes back and forth between being his antagonist and his ally. At heart, the character doesn't make any sense—she's smart or stupid, loyal or duplicitous, depending on when the screenplay needs her to be—and Nielsen doesn't have the charisma to make Lucilla's oscillations interesting. Djimon Hounsou of Amistad also pops up as Juba, an African enlistee into the gladiatorial matches, but he barely speaks, retreats into the background of his shots, and generally proves that the film hasn't a clue what to do with him. As with the digitalized Colosseum, the characters appear less and less real the closer we get to them.

I suppose, though, that there is something inherently rousing about a film built on this scale, perhaps because cinema is so uniquely able to present this kind of spectacle. Even when Gladiator turns nonsensical, and even when its effects shots aren't persuasive, it's hard to look away, and its 154 minutes flew by. Indeed, they almost fly by too quickly; hardly anything about this film, for all its visual spread, ostensible intrigue, and muscular displays, stayed with me after leaving the cinema. Again, though, the exception to Gladiator's curious weightlessness is Russell Crowe, who seems incapable of giving an unfelt performance. The role isn't really specific enough to make his acting a great achievement, but whatever moral authority Gladiator manages to command has less to do with the script's bombast than with the sincere gravity with which Crowe speaks the lines, wears the clothes, inhabits the part. If the film does nothing but make this dynamic actor "bankable," entitling him to more (and more interesting) projects, I'll have to feel grateful to it. Grade: C+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Ridley Scott
Best Actor: Russell Crowe
Best Supporting Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Best Original Screenplay: David Franzoni, John Logan, and William Nicholson
Best Cinematography: John Mathieson
Best Art Direction: Arthur Max; Crispian Sallis
Best Costume Design: Janty Yates
Best Film Editing: Pietro Scalia
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer
Best Sound: Scott Millan, Bob Beemer, and Ken Weston
Best Visual Effects: John Nelson, Neil Corbould, Tim Burke, and Rob Harvey

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Ridley Scott
Best Actor (Drama): Russell Crowe
Best Supporting Actor: Joaquin Phoenix
Best Original Score: Hans Zimmer & Lisa Gerrard

Other Awards:
Producers Guild of America: Best Picture
National Board of Review: Best Supporting Actor (Phoenix; also cited for Quills and The Yards); Best Art Direction
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Picture; Best Cinematography; Best Art Direction; Best Film Editing
Satellite Awards: Best Cinematography; Best Original Score; Best Visual Effects

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