The question about Muhammad Ali movies isn't whether we need another one — we don't — but whether a new one can contribute anything to the canon. "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," debuting Oct. 5 on HBO, possesses a premise that offers promise of that. The title begs the question of whether it's going to be about the Rumble in the Jungle (already the subject of a documentary) or the Thrilla in Manila (already the subject of a documentary), when it is a different kind of fight entirely: Ali's case before the Supreme Court in 1971 for being a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
But where it starts conceptually from a worthy premise and contains a second half better than the first, it gets lost somewhere in between. There are so many pieces of the film that are good — unexplored subject matter, a terrific cast that turns in excellent performances, directorial and writing pedigree. The problem is that some of them don't fit together very well, and the end result is a movie that has its share of moments, but doesn't add up as a whole.
Take the disjointed insertion of documentary footage into what is otherwise predominantly a scripted, acted drama. The decision arises from a sound principle, provided in publicity materials accompanying a review copy of the film from HBO; as writer Shawn Slovo explained it, "Any chance he got, Ali was talking about why he believed in what he believed, why he refused to fight. So we have this brilliant archive footage, and once you see it, you think, 'There is absolutely no point in trying to find an actor to play this man.'" Perhaps this was too unconventional a choice for me to fully embrace, but I struggle to think of a film where this has worked for any length of time. The realism of the Ali footage and the vibrancy of his life and personality ended up, for me, reminding me too profoundly that the rest of what I was watching wasn't real. That disconnect is exacerbated by other choices.
The attempts to put flesh on the bone of the personalities of the nine justices end up going an inch deep and a mile wide, so we know that this justice likes to cheat at basketball and this justice forgets his clerks' names and smokes too much and often little more. Perhaps a running time of greater than 1:38 would've given us more time to get familiar with the justices. Perhaps, too, knowing much more actual biographical detail about the justices — the Supreme Court is a famously insular institution (although you might be surprised by some of the details that are true; do a search for "movie day" and "Supreme Court," for instance) — might have helped. As it is, the opening half of the movie feels too much like a series of partial character sketches with traces of sitcom.
As a movie more about the law and the tumultuous times in which the Court was making its decision, "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" is far more successful. It takes a turn for the better once the justices begin to hear oral arguments and start figuring out what to do with the case. There are still false notes; if it's ever explained or even implied why Justice John Harlan II asks a clerk with the opposite view of him to write a decision, I missed it, and there are plenty of things to give a war protester to shout other than a verbatim John Kerry line. But as a legal procedural with Ali as the spark, the movie takes off. It gives the cast a chance to shine, too, and where some of the roles have been fleshed out better than others — Christopher Plummer and Frank Langella are excellent as Harlan and Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, respectively — they shine particularly brightly.
Because the second half is rewarding, I don't at all regret seeing "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight." And at least one other boxing writer found the movie excellent. Perhaps you will too; I would at minimum recommend trying it on for size, especially since if you're reading this blog you'll already be watching boxing Oct. 5 on HBO when it delivers an star-studded doubleheader of Miguel Cotto-Delvin Rodriguez and Wladimir Klitschko-Alexander Povetkin. But I can't help thinking this could have been better with just a few different choices.
Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, debuting Oct. 5, directed by Stephen Frears ("Dangerous Liaisons," "The Queen," "High Fidelity"); written by Shawn Slovo ("A World Apart");starring Christopher Plummer, Frank Langela, Benjamin Walker, Danny Glover, Ed Begley, Jr., Fritz Weaver, Harris Yulin, Peter Gerety, Barry Levinson, John Bedford Loyd, Pablo Schreiber, Ben Steinfeld and Kathleen Chalfant