If you think Plessy vs. Ferguson was a bare-knuckles title fight or that Roe and Wade were welterweight adversaries, you’re not going to like “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” a docudrama that premieres Saturday on HBO.
It’s set in 1971, the year after Ali returned to the ring to end more than three years in boxing purgatory for refusing induction to the U.S. Army to serve in the Vietnam War. Ali lost the third bout of his comeback to Joe Frazier in March 1971, but he gained a big victory in June when, at long last, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Ali’s appeal of his conviction.
Footage of Ali, mostly on the lecture circuit while he was in limbo, is a significant backdrop, but don’t go looking for Frazier, George Foreman, Jimmy Ellis, Jerry Quarry Mac Foster or their like in the supporting ranks.
This is a movie not so much for devotees of the WBA and the WBC as for devotees of the SCOTUS, which was no longer the Warren Court of the 1960s and, once it even heard Ali’s case, went into deliberations with five votes to uphold the draft-evasion conviction.
It helps here if you truly are a Court aficionado, because the key player is John Harlan, one of the lower-profile justices of the era. He’s played with courtly restraint by Christopher Plummer. Harlan’s lovability when he’s put on the spot by the Ali case is enhanced by the fact that Harlan is terminally ill by then.
Earl Warren was no longer the Chief Justice in 1971, having retired in favor of Nixon appointee Warren Burger, a Minnesotan improbably portrayed by the ever-cosmopolitan Frank Langella without a scintilla of Midwestern blandness. There was a tendency at the time to regard Burger as probably the dimmest member of the court despite his leadership role, but he’s no dummy with Langella playing him.
Thus, the odds are stacked against Ali, even though William Brennan is on hand to carry the banner for overturning the conviction and Warren Court mainstays Hugo Black and William O. Douglas continue to wave the judicial-activist banner. Thurgood Marshall (a crusty Danny Glover) is on the Court but recuses himself because he had been part of the original government prosecutorial forces and in the film professes disgust for Elijah Muhammad and the forces that held sway over Ali.
With Black voting with Byron White and Harry Blackmun to convict but moderate Potter Stewart siding with Brennan and Douglas, the Court’s vote is 5-3, and Burger designates Harlan to write the majority opinion.
The drama is largely about how a newly arrived law clerk played by Benjamin Walker is designated by Harlan to draft the opinion and engineers a turnaround.
To make the whole thing cinematic while sprinkling the acting with lots of actual Ali footage, though little of it actual boxing, requires a lot of exposition. Unfortunately, a lot of it is clumsy, the worst requiring law clerks to describe well-known news of the day, as well as the justices’ political proclivities, as if they are being informative to one another instead of filling in the audience on the tedious details. Because that’s done in excess, the movie is not quite an artistic success.
Nonetheless it’s a fascinating distillation of a complicated case that was crucial to Vietnam War-era politics, and, since it involved The Greatest, crucial to boxing.
If you fancy yourself any sort of expert on the life and times of Ali, you should be able to enjoy “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”
But even non-boxing fans are likely to deem it too much talk, not enough action.