Why ‘Napoleon’ and ‘Maestro’ Were Mediocre, and One Movie You Should Watch Instead

MOVIE REVIEWS: Three recent movies demonstrate the need for a cogent, relatable theme in making a movie something worth seeing.

Promotional movie posters for ‘Napoleon,’ ‘The Iron Claw’ and ‘Maestro’
Promotional movie posters for ‘Napoleon,’ ‘The Iron Claw’ and ‘Maestro’ (photo: Sony Pictures / Netflix / A24 Films)

In storytelling, the theme is the unifying principle of the whole narrative. This goes back to Aristotle’s Poetics, where the greatest of the philosophers asserted that it is a big idea about life that gives a story a universal truth that is relatable to everyone. 

More than any other component of a story, the theme has nearly disappeared from many contemporary movies probably due to the broader cultural loss of objective truth and rationality. 

There are three recent movies that demonstrate the need for a cogent, relatable theme in making a movie something worth seeing. Unfortunately, two of them make this point by the absence of a theme. The mega-budget biopic Napoleon is about a hugely significant figure in world history. The movie, too, should have been consequential. But it isn’t. Maestro, about the first great American musical conductor, should also have carried with it some profound insights. But it doesn’t. Meanwhile, the low-budget independent film, The Iron Claw, is about a family who became icons in the carnival-like world of professional wrestling. This little film has no business being consequential. But it is. The difference in these films is that Napoleon and Maestro never decide what they are about in terms of theme, while The Iron Claw is sharply focused on the great goods and potentially stifling dangers of close-knit family life.

Napoleon and Maestro: Too Much Plot and Too Little Meaning

The biggest pitfall of historical biopics is always that they want to cover too much information. Aristotle warned about “episodic” stories that race through decades from plot point to plot point, leaving the audience disconnected and even lost. The more the filmmakers wed themselves to the details of real history the farther they get from the critical focus that makes stories work. 

A movie can’t be a history text. It can only pick and choose a few sequences of real history according to whatever the theme is of the protagonist’s journey. 

Napoleon is saddled with too much history, and probably too much budget. Director Ridley Scott spends 160 minutes and $200 million hopping around through 40 years of 19th-century European warfare, luxuriating in recreating historical characters and moments that really mean nothing to the audience. He thinks that because Napoleon was fascinating, his movie is going to automatically be fascinating. But well, ce n’est pas

Napoleon is focused on the world around France’s most famous emperor, but never gets inside of him. In terms of theme, the movie could have been about why some men are driven to destroy themselves in the pursuit of power. Or maybe about the origins and marks of someone who is a genius at warfare. But there is no universal wisdom in the piece. The movie is content to wonder at the strange obsession Napoleon had for his lover, Josephine, without a real thesis about how love might impact such a man. 

Similarly, while showcasing Bradley Cooper’s incredible external transformation into the look and style of Leonard Bernstein, Maestro ironically never takes us inside the main character. The great conductor’s narcissistic bisexuality is much more central in the piece than the man’s music, but without any kind of moral lens. It doesn’t have anything cogent to say about how being really, really talented can wreak havoc on a human soul. In this woke moment, Maestro certainly doesn’t want to make any connection between Bernstein’s sexual degeneracy and his descent into creative stagnation and decrepitude. But it doesn’t even want to talk deeply about his passion for music and what that says about humanity. 

Generally, the look and style of a movie take their cue from the theme. In the absence of a theme, directors flail around using all kinds of mismatched stylized techniques to try and give a movie gravitas. Both Napoleon and Maestro have confusing elements like this. 

In Napoleon, one weird choice is in the drabness of the production design. Frame after frame of the film seems cloaked in dark grays. One would think that the French emperor’s court would have some spectacle to look at, but this movie mystifyingly avoided spending any of its huge budget on cool costumes and sets. The battles, too, which should be the visual centerpiece of the film, are shot in a very distanced and colorless way. It’s very hard to know what to look at in the multitude of faraway shots of masses of teeny soldiers subsumed by cannon smoke.

Maestro starts confusing the audience immediately with complex camera movement and awkward transitions in time and places. It’s black and white for the first hour or so and then weirdly morphs into color. There are long dialogue scenes where the actors are so far away that they can’t be seen. And the strange breathless dialogue of both Bernstein and his long-suffering wife is frequently inaudible. 

Neither Napoleon nor Maestro is a total fail. There is good strong acting in both. But ultimately both projects are rendered mediocre because they are lacking a core of meaning.

The Iron Claw

The true story of the Von Erich wrestling family is actually worse than the shocking sequence of tragedies that play out The Iron Claw

In the movie, four of the brothers die. In real life, five did. The movie made the tough choice to leave out some actual history to serve the main movie story, which is of Kevin von Erich, the only brother who survives. The movie is set in the theatrical arena of professional wrestling, and so it is surprising that the film packs a wallop of serious paradox about how the family can be the greatest gift and the greatest curse both at the same time. 

The evangelical Christian family at the center of the story has a secondary religion that makes them thoroughly invested in each other’s lives — the wrestling greatness that eluded their father, Fritz, becomes the glue and purpose that drives them much more than their religious faith. The main element in the Von Erichs’ lives is brotherly love. The movie includes tender moments in which the brothers play and have fun together in a way that says, “We don’t need anybody else.” Every family should be so close, right? 

Gradually, the family’s wrestling obsession isolates them from the outside world. There’s a desperate need for success in Fritz that is absorbed by his sons, who basically just want to be together. The family turns in on itself and its very closeness becomes a fulcrum of pressure to succeed. 

While her husband pushes her sons more and more, the mother, Doris, played by the talented Maura Tierney, opts to look away. One by one the brothers are consumed by the family passion, with one of the brothers even taking his own life to be reunited with a brother who died. The only brother who survives is Kevin (played by Zac Efron), who has found a love outside the family in the form of his wife, Pam (Lily James). The movie suggests that close families need to open the circle or else they can become rancid.

The Iron Claw is a small film in terms of production values, but the story is interesting and the characters engaging, and they both serve the project’s compelling theme. This little film is better for the world than either Napoleon or Maestro because it gives the audience some truth for their journey. In movies, big doesn’t necessarily mean better. 


Advisory: The Iron Claw, a Netflix film, is rated R for wrestling violence, themes of suicide and implied sexuality. Napoleon is rated R for adult themes, war violence and some moments of crass sexuality. Maestro is rated R for adult themes and homosexuality.