Overview: Famous for both his signature shuffle and verbal sparring, boxer Cassius Clay quickly rose to fame in the ‘60s, becoming the world’s best-known athlete – and eventually its most controversial. After joining the Nation of Islam and adopting the name Muhammad Ali, he was widely denounced for refusing to be drafted into the U.S. military, based on his religious opposition to the Vietnam War. Stripped of his title and banned from the sport, the self-proclaimed “Greatest” lost nearly four years of his boxing prime to legal battles. In 1971, his case for being a conscientious objector eventually reached the United States Supreme Court, rooted by tradition and conservative ideals with Nixon appointed Chief Justice Warren E. Burger at its helm.
HBO Films presents in association with SAF Films West MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST FIGHT, starring Academy Award® winner Christopher Plummer (“Beginners”), Academy Award® nominee Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and Benjamin Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”); directed by Academy Award® nominee Stephen Frears (“The Queen”) from a script by Shawn Slovo (“A World Apart”); and executive produced by Emmy® winner Frank Doelger (HBO’s “Game of Thrones” and “The Gathering Storm”), Emmy® winner Tracey Scoffield (HBO’s “The Gathering Storm”), Jonathan Cameron and Stephen Frears.
Expectations: My expectations for this movie are on the mark. The reason for that is because this work has had plenty of publicity going for it and I chose to keep abreast of it. There were plenty of interviews, and video clips from creators and actors alike. I shared one such source here. So, I am going into this production totally aware of all the players and the tone the film takes.
For example, I already know that the role of Muhammad Ali, is not played out by an actor but is seen only via archival footage; I know that he is not the main character of this movie even though his name is in the title. I was duped by HBO Films: PHIL SPECTOR when we learned, after the fact, that the troubled musical impresario was not that movie’s main focus. If you remember, (and if you don’t than hit that provided link) the main character was the concept of “reasonable doubt”; the star of this piece is really the case Clay vs. United States as seen through the eyes of one Judge Harlan.
Going in with those facts takes certain concerns off the table but it doesn’t mean that I will like the approach taken. I guess that means I have to watch HBO Films: MUHAMMAD ALI’s GREATEST FIGHT and find out.
Gut Reaction: It turns out that this HBO Film clicks on all cylinders for me. First, it is just a good history lesson and not only about the early career of Cassius Clay, but also about the state of the nation in the Vietnam era, some of the mechanics on how the Justice Department works and a bit about each of the Justices that served at that time in history. This offering delivers just the right dose of all of those elements to make an interesting picture.
I had no problem in the way Muhammad Ali was presented in the film. The archival footage of him blended in well and they were just great clips in their own right. I wondered why the famous boxer was not portrayed by someone and upon seeing the film I understand why it was not handled that way. It would have been a distraction had an actor tried to play the part. The viewer might have been paying to close attention to the performance thus disconnecting from the story; a critical eye would have, positively or negatively, made the focal point of the movie Ali which was not the creative team’s intent. I think it played out in the best way possible.
And since, Muhammad Ali was not the focal point then someone else had to become the anchor to hang the story on which leads to Christopher Plummer as Justice Harlan. A wonderful actor, placed with equally compelling actors on the screen made this a enjoyable experience. There is anguish over failing health, bonding with clerks, excuses to watch porn and other interesting moments that made this movie work. It was not just talking heads debating the issues of the day; It took time to illustrate the times and the nuances of the players. Danny Glover and Frank Langella were pleasures to watch. They all were, even when it finally got to the nitty-gritty of the case at hand. Yes, the full details of the times and the issue of the “conscientious objector” may have gotten rushed through a bit but it still was able to spell out the facts for any common man to follow.
In Conclusion: I think you should see HBO Films: MUHAMMAD ALI’S GREATEST FIGHT. It is a history lesson well worth exploring. There are so many nice moments contained therein and some healthy food for thought as well.
HBO airdates: 10.08 at 1:00pm & 8:30pm; 10.13 at 10:30am & 1:00am; 10.16 at 11:45am & 8:00pm; 10.19 at 3:45pm; 10.22 at 5:00pm & 12.30am; 10.24 at 10:00am & 8:30pm; 10.26 at 12:15pm; 10.28 at 10;15am and 10.31 at 5:00pm. It can also be found on HBOGo.