As a history teacher I was obviously very excited when Ridley Scott announced he was making a Napoleon movie featuring Joaquin Phoneix. It's the perfect director for it with the perfecf actor for it. The movie was definitely not perfect, but a strong performance from Phoenix combined with Scott's talent at making large scale war battles created a solid movie worth watching. Really there hasn't been a war movie of this magnitute/genre in a very long time, so regardless of the quality of the movie it was good to see practical stunts, huge war scenes with hundreds of extras, and well choreographed battle sequences.
Once again from a history teacher's lens, this movie skillfully paces itself, glancing on each event that really mattered to what Napoleon achieved and how/why he achieved it. The movie covers from Marie's execution all the way to Napoleon's death (spoilers?). It spends a lot of time on the Napoleonic Wars, and glances over his time in Egypt and before the coup in general, which was a good choice. I do think it's odd the plot focuses so much on Josephine, their relationship is dynamic and interesting, and Vanessa Kirby was fantastic as always, but their scenes together were reduntant at times. I'd rather have cut that 30 minutes of plot from the film and gotten more time with Napoleon the Leader, not Napoleon the Lover. I understand why the film chooses to focus so intently on Napoleon's hatred towards Alexander, but as a historian it just bothered me that Portugal and Spain's very important roles in the defeat of Napoleon were left out. The Peninsular War was a huge moment in his defeat (obviously not as big as the invasion of Russia), and to see Portugal not even mentioned in the movie was odd, especially living in an area with a lot of Portuguese families who never ever get represented in movies. So while the plot was paced well for a war drama, the Josephine parts could have been done better, and Portugal and Spain could have been given a bit more screen time.
I know it might be a hard sell for some but I do really think Joaquin Phoneix deserves an award for best actor for this role. The beginning battle scene alone is a masterpiece is physical acting. You can sense excitement, nerves, and cold steel and derermination just by watching Napoleon's face and hearing the way his voice shakes yet commands. Some lines were definitely a little too Joker-esque for me, but most of the movie is carried on his Oscar worthy performance. The supporting cast is exactly that, supporting, but Vanessa Kirby does her job very well, and should also be in the running for best actress. The rest of the cast does their jobs fine, but the energy and skill between the leads is one of the best performances of the year.
Ridley Scott does war well. That's why I wish we had seen a lot more of it and a lot less of Josephine. The war scenes we do get are beautifully shot, and (sort of) showcase Napoleon's leadership skills and battle prowess. Kind of. He most certainly was wise enough to NOT do a cavalry charge, as it constantly depicted in the movie. And a LOT of the war "strategies" were made up for the movie. Yes, he won and commanded those victories, but he did not drown people in a lake. That's cinema. What sucks about this is that Napoleone did a LOT of crazy things to win his battles in real life, and really none of it is shown here. The dude got stabbed by a bayonent in one of the battles shown in the movie, yet for some reason that was left out. His armies march through Spain was rife with chaos and bloodshed, yet none of it is shown. His loss to Horatio Nelson was also a very signifcant battle for the British and Napoleon learned a lot from it, so it's asbence was also definitely felt. Give me the 10 hour Director's Cut showing all of the battle please. The war we do see isn't very accurate, but it is good Hollywood war movie entertainment nonetheless. And seeing a large scale (mostly) not CGI battle was good for the movie soul.
Napoleon suffers from an odd focus on his (boring) relationship with Josephine, and should have spent more time on Napoleon as a leader, not a lover. The movie also makes silly strides showing Napoleon's leadership in false ways, when there were plenty of factual historical examples they could have used. The acting is superb, but the movie itself falls a little short of being great.