by JAMES BRIGHAM
Picture This Scene
I’m going to take advice from the Frank Miller school of writing and open my review of this epic with a brash, incendiary declaration: 300 is a better film than Sin City, punk. Comparison of the two adaptations is damn near unavoidable due to large portions of my brain’s storage capacity being devoted to knowledge of sequential art and the silver screen. Luckily for my sanity, this mental showdown lasts about as long as a frontrunner footman against a Spartan phalanx. Director Zack Snyder surpassed my lofty expectations and delivered a film that easily bests Robert Rodriguez’s crime caper in nearly every way. 300 is a historical popcorn piece punctuated with thought provoking philosophy and awash with truly lavish visuals; it’s already become one of my top films of 2007.
To be completely fair in my analysis, I must admit to not having read Miller’s 300. I’ve only seen the occasional panel online despite the fact it’s been on my “to-read” list for years now. That being said, however, I was absolutely blown away by the immediately arresting nature of the imagery in 300. Rodriguez’s collaboration with Miller was daring and experimental, to be sure, but it occasionally faltered in its attempts to literally translate the comic and bring the pictures to life. Miller’s gorgeous black and white linework and careful sequencing was sometimes lost. Panels that were gorgeous drawings containing insane levels of detail hustled by in the blink of an eye, losing their power and majesty. To feast my eyes upon the stunningly beautiful slow motion sequences of 300 was significantly more satisfying. Snyder seems to know exactly when and where to slow the cameras down and let the audience take in every exquisite detail of a snow covered plain or a beautiful oracle or recoil at the sight of a savage spear thrust or misshapen man. These scenes are paintings come to life, adept at displaying Miller’s larger-than-life artistic and storytelling tendencies.
This inclination on Snyder’s part is wholly appropriate for Miller’s retelling of these 300 Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae. Again and again, the film drives home the point that history is told by the victors and that this battle, already an impressive military victory from a numbers perspective, will be spoken of down through the generations, echoing in every listener’s ear and amplifying the achievement. Do events and figures in the film border on ridiculous excess? The answer is yes if you take 300 as a literal retelling of the battle using all the available data. But as a model of heroic storytelling and creative interpretation of real life events and figures, 300 is just as good as and no different from Braveheart, Gladiator, or Saving Private Ryan. 300 should be given particular license due to its events occurring so long ago in time. To the Spartans, I’m sure the armies of the Persian empire and its self proclaimed god-king would have seemed alien and monstrous, hence the exaggeration of the physical features and weaponry of key soldiers. Over the years, the story continues to pile on top of itself until you get things like Xerxes literally being shown as twice the height of a normal man and being carried on a massive golden throne by hundreds of slaves.
In fact, it’s a further testament to the complexity of 300 that the beautifully shot battle sequences rarely gave me the sense that the director was strictly pandering to those audience members with fictional bloodlust or a jingoistic mindset. The Spartans are admirable in the sense that they’re extremely regimented, highly trained, and super fit and yet they could also be seen as highly bizarre in their practices, especially from a modern person’s viewpoint. To watch the finest soldiers that such a militaristic state could offer was both impressive and frightening. I found that the frequent dances of hand-to-hand combat were wonderful to watch: the Spartans gracefully flowed from form to form. And then the camera would suddenly return to normal speed as a sword sliced through an attacker and I was harshly reminded of the brutality of war as dark, red liquid sprayed the screen.
The legendary figure around which all of this sword and sandal combat revolves is King Leonidas who is played with aplomb by Gerard Butler. His steadfast declarations and steely-eyed stare combine for an incredible performance that commands the screen. I felt like having this sort of man as commander would bolster the morale of any military unit from the past, present, or future. Equally commendable is Butler’s acting in the quieter scenes of contemplation on his love of country and his wife at home. In a way, it’s a shame that his presence overwhelms the picture. Finely acted scenes of political intrigue involving his wife, Queen Gorgo (Lena Headey) and the treacherous councilman Theron (Dominic West) come off as merely good acting in comparison and slightly drag down the pace of 300.
While it shouldn’t be construed as a replacement for historical research, 300’s heightened reality and fine storytelling should be applauded for highlighting such a notable event and will hopefully spur on a host of people to visit their local libraries and/or watch copious amounts of the History Channel in the future. As Leonidas said, the tale of the 300 Spartans who stood against an army of thousands would be told forever; I just don’t think he realized how many mediums would be used to spread the tale. Ironically, it sometimes takes a comic book to remind the audience what great cinema is capable of delivering and to entice the unaware masses to learn more of their world’s fascinating past.
3 1/2 stars