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Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight on HBO

The smartest move director Stephen Frears makes, with this earnest HBO film, is letting Muhammad Ali be the star of it. Oh, the Parkinson’s afflicted, now septuagenarian, former 3-time heavyweight boxing king doesn’t actually perform in the finished product. But neither is there an actor enlisted to portray the great champion. However, this depiction of the behind-the-scenes battle amongst the Supreme Court of the United States, as to whether or not overturn a decision to send Ali to prison for draft evasion, only truly springs to life when utilizing archive footage of “the Greatest”. It’s not a bad little film(slightly over a 90-minute investment), and I certainly appreciate any feature covering the life of a black athlete sans any actual sports(or with sports for that matter—where’s the major motion picture on the life of Joe Louis, or Hank Aaron, or Jesse Owens, or Sugar Ray Robinson…). But it’s a bit sappy, and somewhat uninspired, when Muhammad isn’t on-screen. This is a man who managed to outshine The Beatles, Howard Cosell, Sylvester Stallone and Wilt Chamberlain(among others)throughout his fistic career. Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella, fine actors both, never had a prayer.    

In 1966, boxing champion Muhammad Ali’s draft status was reclassified as 1A, after the qualifying tests were revised(Muhammad failed the writing and spelling portion in 1964, prompting his proclamation, “I said I was the greatest, not the smartest!”). His new classification status meant that Mr. Ali could be drafted to serve in the Vietnam War(upon which Ali famously quipped, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong.”). Muhammad Ali did appear for his April 1967 induction ceremony, but he refused to step forward when his name was called. This was considered a felony crime that was punishable by 5 years in prison and a 10,000 dollar fine. In June of 1967, Ali’s conscientious objector status on religious grounds(Ali is a Muslim, and argued that war was against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an)was denied after a post-trial 21 minute deliberation. Ali was found guilty of draft evasion, and the conviction was upheld by the Court of Appeals. Undefeated as a professional boxer, Ali was soon stripped of the heavyweight title that he had won by shocking Sonny Liston in February of 1964. The case eventually snailed its way to the Supreme Court, while the 25-year old Ali sat idle for over three years—during what is considered a boxer’s “prime”. In fact, many claim that we never actually got to see Muhammad Ali at his best due to this, and between 1968 and 1971, two different boxers held portions of the title—without ever having to actually defeat Ali in the ring.

“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” begins in 1971, when the case finally makes it to the highest court in the land. And Chief Justice Warren E. Burger(Mr. Langella), Justice John Marshall Harlan II(Mr. Plummer)and six other Justices(Thurgood Marshall, the legendary first African-American Justice, played here by a dynamite Danny Glover, elected to sit this vote out), quarrel to decide Ali’s case(officially known as Clay v. United States—the court choosing to recognize Ali by his birth name of Cassius Marcellus Clay(Ali publicly announced his name change, hours after kayoing Sonny Liston—in his words dropping his “slave” name for a good “Muslim” name). And so we are left with a story about eight old white guys, ruling on the fate of a controversial black champion, with a number of young law clerks in the background vocally choosing sides in the battle. The new clerk on the scene, Kevin Kennedy(a fine Benjamin Walker, Lincoln in the film “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”, and President Jackson on stage in the superb “Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson”)eventually takes a decided interest in defending Ali, and steadily works on convincing the terminally ill Justice Harlan, that the champ’s case should be heard.

Hey, it’s a compelling story, lovingly presented, and well-acted. But the center is hollow and the focus is muted. Some good, old-fashioned, “Inherit the Wind” or “12 Angry Men” style film-making may have helped this ship sail. But what we get is gooey claptrap about Justice Harlan’s cancer diagnosis and his wife’s escalating dependency due to the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. There’s also a bizarre amount of time spent on clerk Kennedy and his wife expecting their first child. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo’s screenplay practically screams for some more legal mano a mano, but instead we are soft-pedaled with sentimentality. At least there’s Ali. Handsome, verbose, quick-witted—a modestly educated man with the uncanny ability to summon true genius. He saves the film from tumbling completely into the television movie doldrums. Without him, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” is just highbrow soap opera. There are so many amazing tales yet to be told about the one-time “most famous man on the planet”. This story chooses a good yarn, but eventually loses its way.     Grade:  C+

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