By Cliff Rold
Not another Muhammad Ali movie.
When first it was announced that HBO would be producing a film about Ali’s Supreme Court case, this scribe can’t be alone in the sentiment. For all his stature, there is a fair feeling that the Ali story at times has over saturated the market. After Michael Mann’s biopic Ali, When We Were Kings, and even the TV film King of the World, along with countless documentaries, what’s left?
It turns out there was another story to tell.
Reviewing an advance copy of Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, debuting Saturday on HBO (8:00 PM EST), the story left to tell really wasn’t about Ali at all. It’s a story about process, politics, the US Constitution, and the men appointed to decipher, interpret, and defend it.
It’s worth a view.
The movie isn’t without its issues. The juxtaposition of documentary style footage of Ali with the fictionalized depiction of the inner workings of the court wreaks havoc on the pace of the film. The rationale for structuring the film that way makes sense.
Ali is an icon. His charisma lights up the screen and it helps to frame the humanity of the case.
The details are known to most by now. Ali refused induction in the US Armed Forces to serve in Vietnam on conscientious objector grounds growing out of his conversion with the Nation of Islam. He lost in court and was sentenced to five years in jail and a fine.
The appeals process would take years in the courts and years off his fistic career.
The problem for the film, from a narrative standpoint, is that for the first hour the momentum of the drama seems to come to a standstill when Ali is on screen. It was a case where less actual Ali would have been better for Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.
Ali’s is not the only historical footage used. There is also ample footage of anti-war protests, in particular a Supreme Court enforced ruling against protestors that is portrayed in the film both as a First Amendment betrayal and as a moral fulcrum for Justice John Harlan. That footage does more to advance the feeling of immediacy in the film and push the plot forward.
And when it gets to its second half, the actors on screen take over and the movie sails. Harlan, as portrayed by Christopher Plummer, is the real star of the show but meets his match in the form of a court clerk portrayed by Benjamin Walker. Their interplay, and the relationship between Harlan and Chief Justice Warren Burger, plays like a game of chess as the court moves from a 5-3 vote against Ali to history’s ultimate vindication.
Despite knowing where the story is going, there is real drama on screen as viewers are reminded that while the Court as an institution may stand apart, the men who make it up are just men. In this case, they are men of real intelligence struggling with issues small and large to try and find something that shouldn’t be so tough: justice.
For older viewers, the film may provide new insights. For younger viewers, it is a wonderful chance to learn and foster conversation about American jurisprudence. And for all, if the muddled early part of the film can be weathered the payoff is strong.
Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight isn’t the best movie about the man. That remains When We Were Kings.
But it isn’t just another Muhammad Ali movie either.
It’s a welcome addition to telling of an important tale.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]