Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight: Cannes Review

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight Cannes Special Screening Still - H 2013
Festival de Cannes/PA

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight Cannes Special Screening Still - H 2013

An engaging, overly snappy look at little-known aspects of a fascinating Supreme Court case.

Director Stephen Frears' historical drama recreates the inner workings of the 1970 Supreme Court as it determined the fate of Muhammad Ali for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War.

One of the most headline-making U.S. Supreme Court decisions of the tumultuous early-1970s era is given a tantalizing but cut-and-dried behind-the-scenes treatment in Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, a lively, overly cutesy inside look at how the justices ended up vindicating the boxer’s refusal to serve in the Army and Vietnam. Unavoidably interesting historically and legally, this HBO Films original movie provides details unknown even to informed people who lived through the period and will illuminate younger viewers concerning an important aspect of the legendary sporting figure’s life.

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The script by Shawn Slovo (A World Apart) is about judges, not about Ali himself, who nonetheless comes through as a strong presence via many great film clips and interview snippets from the time. The crux of the matter is that, upon winning the heavyweight crown, brash young Cassius Clay changed his name to Muhammad Ali, embraced Elijah Muhammad’s Nation of Islam and eventually declared himself a conscientious objector on religious grounds to serving in the armed forces.

In 1967, Ali was sentenced to five years in prison for refusing to report for duty. During the nearly four years it took for the case to work its way to the Supreme Court, he became a polarizing political figure, embraced by his fans and anti-war protestors and derided by the establishment as well as by some fellow blacks in sports. His passport revoked and his right to fight in the U.S. denied, Ali was stripped of his title and deprived of his livelihood during his prime as a fighter.

As it settles in to take on new cases in October, 1970, the Supreme Court is led by Chief Justice Warren Burger (Frank Langella), a conservative just appointed by President Nixon the year before. Slovo’s script often seems guided by a checklist of points that need to be stressed: The average age of the justices is 71, there are no women, Ivy Leaguers dominate, Nixon has personal expectations of the court to deliver verdicts to his liking and so on. In the broad, winking, even smirking acting style that director Stephen Frears has clearly approved, there is a slightly comic Seven Dwarfs aspect to the way the nine justices are portrayed, one no doubt meant to humanize them but which as often renders them a bit silly.

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For instance, the one black justice on the bench, Thurgood Marshall (Danny Glover), recuses himself from the Ali case due to a prior involvement with it and then spends all of his time watching soap operas or sex films (the court is considering a major pornography case that clearly requires extensive research) and denigrating the Nation of Islam: “They preach racial segregation. I’m an integrationist.”

Primary attention is paid to aging veteran jurist John Harlan II (Christopher Plummer), who was appointed to the court by Eisenhower in 1955 and is now suffering from multiple ailments, including failing eyesight and internal pains. He considers the Ali matter “a waste of the court’s time,” but his brash new clerk Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), disagrees and helps make sure it isn’t ignored.

But this is nothing compared to the contribution he makes when the justices conduct their table vote, which goes 5-3 against Ali. The liberal Connolly is assigned by his boss to write an initial majority opinion, which he simply can’t bring himself to do. With time out for jogging through the halls of the court offices, he spends the night researching possible legal precedents for the conscientious objection argument and finds one in an old decision in which Jehovah’s Witnesses were exempted from military service on the same basis.

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At first, Harlan doesn’t even want to hear about this but then begins reconsidering the issue like the wise and considerate man Supreme Court justices are supposed to be. The rest of quickly told tale is about the cancer-stricken man’s strategic moves to bring his colleagues around to a unanimous decision in favor of Ali, not an easy matter in the case of Burger, upon whom Nixon is counting to send Ali to prison.

Because it takes the viewer into the inner sanctum of the highly secretive Supreme Court, everything that happens here is almost automatically interesting. But perhaps from fear that the combination of very old men and extensive legalese might be boring, Frears pushes things along at such a clip that the impression becomes one of superficiality and briskness for its own sake. Some antics and even a fistfight between two young clerks feel dragged in and hardly necessary to provide some action, which is amply supplied by highlights from various Ali bouts.

Only Plummer is given the opportunity to shape a somewhat multi-dimensional character and the actor continues on his late-career streak of exemplary performances with a touching portrait of a highly dignified man battling not to allow his physical incapacities to inhibit his professional activities. Langella cuts an imposing figure as the stalwart Burger, while the other fine actors playing justices -- Fritz Weaver, Harris Yulin, Peter Gerety, John Bedford Lloyd, Ed Begley Jr. and director Barry Levinson -- get a few lines in here and there.

Sets and numerous New York-area locations quite convincingly double for the Washington, D.C. settings in this attention-holding but almost too efficient production.

Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screening)

Production Companies: Rainmark Films, HBO Films

Cast: Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Benjamin Walker, Ed Begley Jr., Peter Gerety, Barry Levinson, John Bedford Lloyd, Fritz Weaver, Harris Yulin, Pablo Schreiber, Ben Steinfeld, Dana Ivey, Kathleen Chalfant, Lisa Joyce, Peter McRobbie, Damian Young, Chuck Cooper, Victoro Slezak

Director: Stephen Frears

Screenwriter: Shawn Slovo, based on the book by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace

Producer: Scott Ferguson

Executive producers: Jonathan Cameron, Frank Doelger, Tracey Scoffield

Director of photography: Jim Denault

Production designer: Dan Davis

Costume designer: Molly Maginnis

Editor: Mick Audsley

Music: George Fenton

95 minutes