In 1967, Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight title and sentenced to three years incarceration after ruling himself out of the Vietnam war.
The appeal process dragged on for three years, through a good portion of his boxing prime, before it reached the supreme court. The fate of the era's most celebrated and contentious African-American was now in the hands of a gang of old, white patricians, few of whom would be likely to look on him kindly.
The fact that Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight elects to ignore Ali in favour of the old, white patricians need not necessarily be cause for concern. There are many ways to skin a cat and various angles into a good story. But the new film from Stephen Frears, which played in a special screening at this year's Cannes film festival, is so abidingly genteel that one finds oneself longing for a little Ali-style flash and panache. Frears's drama is harmless; it stings like a butterfly.
Decent acting keeps the tale halfway honest. Frank Langella plays Chief Justice Burger, a silken puppet of the Nixon administration, while Christopher Plummer manages a lovely, resonant turn as vacillating Justice Harlan – right up until the point when the script tips towards bathos. Further down the bill, Danny Glover is clearly enjoying himself as Thurgood Marshall, the court's first black justice, mischievously playing along when a visitor mistakes him for the elevator boy.
For all that, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is too genial, too lightweight, and altogether too deskbound. Inside their oak-panelled chambers, the justices chew over the case, discussing whether Ali's Muslim faith is entirely compatible with conscientious objection; wafting in from outside come the faint sounds of the anti-war protests. If one accepts the view that these men are too cloistered, too stuffy, too removed from the action, it's an accusation to which the movie is equally susceptible.
No doubt Frears made the right decision in not casting an actor as Ali, surely one of the most familiar (and filmed) public figures of the past half-century. But his heavy use of archive newsreel proves a double-edged benefit. Time and again we cut away from the court to witness the man at his peak, almost radioactive with charisma. He's defending himself before the cameras; he's singing on TV chat shows; he's talking trash before the bout. In antique glimpses, Ali steals the show. It made me wonder, given the abundance of footage on offer, why Frears did not bite the bullet and make a documentary instead. It made me pine for the film that got away.
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