USA Daily News
Top US news in one place!


Beyond the Battlefield: Unearthing Surprising Narratives in the New Napoleon Movie


"Analyzing Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon': A Warning and a Reflection on Populism"

Editor’s Noah Berlatsky (@nberlat) is a freelance writer in Chicago. The views expressed here are his own.

In a historical era rife with cautionary tales about authoritarian populism, Ridley Scott's latest venture, "Napoleon," emerges as a 158-minute epic that delves into the life of the French leader. At a time when hagiographies of powerful figures seem ill-timed, Scott takes on the challenge, shedding light on how Napoleon's ambitious pursuits poisoned not only his life but also his nation and, ultimately, the entirety of Europe.

Acknowledging the dangers of portraying an overweening authoritarian populist, Scott's film serves as both a warning against contemporary populist figures and an exploration of the media culture's penchant for "big characters." Despite deploring Napoleon's grotesque hubris, Scott seems captivated by it, using the opportunity for sweeping spectacle and Hollywood mythmaking.

The narrative unfolds against the backdrop of the late 18th-century French Revolution and the ensuing terror. Joaquin Phoenix, an Academy Award-winning actor, portrays Napoleon as a talented young officer whose military successes propel him into positions of influence and power. In the early stages, Napoleon exudes the glamour of a Hollywood action hero, reminiscent of characters from "Top Gun" or "Die Hard" – confident, maverick, and bound for inevitable victory.

Yet, Scott skillfully peels back the layers to reveal a less attractive Napoleon. Phoenix's portrayal evolves, exposing the mask of a self-absorbed man who hides behind a facade of stoic features. The movie unravels the populist appeal that propelled him to French leadership, contrasting the initial glamor with a more nuanced, unflattering perspective.

Napoleon's complex character is further dissected in his relationships, particularly with his first wife, Josephine, played by Vanessa Kirby. Scott portrays the jealousy and farce woven into their interactions, debunking the myth of Napoleon as a sensitive lover. The bedroom scenes, both humorous and uncomfortable, reveal the self-absorption that leads to his eventual abandonment of Josephine due to her inability to conceive.

As Napoleon ascends to self-crowned emperor, the film explores his vaunting sense of destiny and the consequential decisions that make both him and Josephine miserable. The quest for an heir, driven by his perceived destiny, unfolds without guaranteeing the longevity of his dynasty.

In essence, Ridley Scott's "Napoleon" serves as a cautionary tale, urging viewers to reflect on the allure of populist figures and the consequences of unchecked ambition. Through a cinematic journey that alternates between glamor and discomfort, the film challenges audiences to question the narratives that elevate larger-than-life characters and to consider the real complexities that lie beneath their charismatic facades.

"The Complex Portrait of Napoleon: From Genius General to Ridiculous Ego"

In Ridley Scott's cinematic exploration of Napoleon's life, the private persona of the French leader emerges as ridiculous, while the public image transforms into a monstrous figure. The film captures Napoleon's genuine genius as a general, a brilliance that wanes as he succumbs to an unwavering belief in his own abilities. In the latter part of his career, his refusal to acknowledge setbacks or strategic retreats leads to disastrous outcomes, notably the infamous Russian winter campaign of 1812, resulting in the freezing deaths of hundreds of thousands of his soldiers.

As Napoleon faces exile to the island of Elba and subsequent defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, the film concludes with a staggering statistic—3 million people lost their lives in Napoleon's wars. Scott, cognizant of the gravity of this toll, shares it with the audience. Yet, the paradox lies in the very existence of the movie; Scott's fascination with the ego, the death, and the complexities of the man himself.

Joaquin Phoenix leads the charge as Napoleon, capturing the filmmaker's love for dramatic visuals, particularly in the lush, gothic set pieces of battle scenes. The vivid portrayal of the 1805 Battle of Austerlitz, where Napoleon lures rival armies onto a frozen lake, showcases Scott's ability to render men, horses, and blood sinking in slow motion beneath the frigid waters.

Despite moments where Napoleon is depicted as a dope, the film presents him as a character worthy of the cinematic spotlight. The coup against the Second Directory in 1799, portrayed as a barely competent exercise in slapstick, reveals a Napoleon rolling on the floor, attacked by middle-aged politicians. Far from a portrait of a great leader, this scene is entertaining and even charming, inviting audiences to contemplate Napoleon's power not merely as a cautionary tale but as a captivating movie spectacle. In the end, the film captures the duality of Napoleon—an extraordinary general whose downfall stems from an unchecked and ultimately detrimental ego.

"The Charisma of Imperfection: Unveiling the Likability of a Flawed Napoleon"

In Ridley Scott's portrayal of Napoleon, the film doesn't shy away from showcasing the laughable moments and failures of the French leader. This nuanced approach doesn't diminish Napoleon's greatness; instead, it adds a layer of relatability and watchability to his character. A flawless, stoic Napoleon for two-and-a-half hours would be a challenge to endure. The bumbling, imperfect Napoleon, who falters even in matters of intimacy, becomes far more entertaining.

The film cleverly captures the essence of a Napoleon who can't quite live up to his larger-than-life image, making the character all the more captivating. It's a dynamic that extends to leaders like former President Donald Trump, often compared to a modern-day Napoleon. While there are stark differences between the two, such as Trump's draft avoidance and lack of military success, and the unsuccessful nature of Trump's coup attempt, there are underlying similarities in their populist appeal.

Much like Scott's Napoleon, Trump's endless self-puffery and self-regard often render him a caricature of himself. Yet, rather than undercutting his appeal, these traits magnify it. Trump's eccentricities, from his orange complexion to his all-caps social media posts and outrageous statements, contribute to the media's fascination, turning even serious incidents into moments of humor or entertainment.

The comparison extends to the media's role in both leaders' political journeys. Trump, particularly in his 2016 campaign, benefited significantly from extensive media coverage, earning around $5.6 billion in earned media, according to data collected by mediaQuant. Despite controversies, Trump's later appearances, such as a town hall on CNN, drew substantial audiences, reflecting the enduring allure of larger-than-life characters, flaws and all.

In examining the likability of a flawed Napoleon, the film prompts viewers to consider the parallels with contemporary political figures, recognizing that imperfections, rather than detracting from their appeal, can enhance the charisma of these larger-than-life personalities.

"The Theater of Power: Examining the Allure of Flawed Giants in the Media"

As Donald Trump assumes the role of the leading Republican presidential contender, media coverage inevitably follows suit. However, the tenor of this coverage, often characterized by a voyeuristic, edge-of-the-seat, horserace mentality, is a deliberate choice. Ridley Scott's "Napoleon" hints at a profound truth – our fascination with grotesque populist figures is a significant source of their power.

The film suggests that society is drawn to stories featuring flawed giants, individuals with captivating flaws that stem from an inflated perception of their own grandeur. The narrative of such characters, like Napoleon, transcends a mere recounting of their deeds. It becomes a tale of the allure of power, even when tainted by grotesque elements.

To truly encapsulate Napoleon's malevolence, one would need to explore the perspective of the soldiers he dragged across Europe to their shallow graves. To delve into Napoleon's emptiness and selfishness, a film titled "Josephine" would be required. However, as long as the lens remains fixed on the emperor, even if ambivalently mocking, there is an implicit acknowledgment and honor bestowed upon him.

The film subtly underscores that Napoleon, were he alive today, might not necessarily appreciate this portrayal. Still, the very act of seeing his face blown up on the big screen would undoubtedly align with his historical penchant for grandiosity. In dissecting the media's role in perpetuating the narratives of flawed giants, "Napoleon" invites audiences to reflect on the complex dynamics that contribute to the enduring fascination with powerful, yet flawed, figures in the public eye.

"In conclusion, Ridley Scott's 'Napoleon' offers a thought-provoking exploration of the allure of flawed giants in the media, drawing parallels between the French leader and contemporary figures like Donald Trump. The film suggests that our fascination with populist figures, even when ambivalently mocking, contributes to their enduring power. By portraying Napoleon's larger-than-life persona, the movie prompts reflection on the complex dynamics at play in the public's perception of powerful yet flawed leaders. As the media continues to shape narratives around political figures, 'Napoleon' serves as a cinematic lens through which audiences can examine the impact of storytelling on our understanding and fascination with characters who wield both greatness and imperfections."