Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight HBO review

A worthy but faintly dull civics/history lesson directed by Stephen Frears at his most televisual.

Although technically apt, the title of the dry Supreme Court drama “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” refers not to any of the boxer’s bouts in the ring, but rather to his legal battle for recognition as a conscientious objector. Helmer Stephen Frears splices in archival footage of Ali at his articulate, charismatic best, but really, the main dramatis personae are Eight Grumpy Men from the Supreme Court (one, Thurgood Marshall, recused himself) as they argue around a conference table. Result is a worthy but faintly dull civics/history lesson that’s well suited to broadcast by producer HBO, but doesn’t have the muscle mass for theatrical distribution.

An opening credits montage unspools choice clips of Ali battling in the ring, bragging oncamera and then announcing his conversion to the Nation of Islam. Explanatory subtitles help crisply establish how Ali was convicted of draft evasion in 1967, at the height of his career, when he refused to fight in Vietnam for religious reasons; he was freed on appeal but stripped of his title and boxing license. (Delightful additional footage shows Ali’s efforts to earn a buck while banned from boxing through public-speaking engagements; at one point he appeared in the Broadway play “Buck White,” an excerpt from which he performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sporting a full foot-wide afro.)

The case worked its way up through the courts until it reached the Supreme Court in 1970-71, which is where the drama proper begins. It’s here in Washington that idealistic Southern-born lawyer Kevin Connolly (seemingly an entirely fictional character played by Benjamin Walker, “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) secures a job as a clerk to Republican-sympathetic Supreme Court justice John Marshall Harlan (Christopher Plummer, with a wily twinkle in his eye).

Just as Connolly alternately befriends and clashes with his fellow clerks (Ben Steinfeld, Pablo Schreiber), so, too, do the justices themselves form alliances and enmities, sometimes even across political-party lines. Harlan, for instance, is chummy with newly appointed chief justice Warren Burger (Frank Langella), a hawkish conservative always ready to take phone calls from the White House with a complicity that somewhat undermines the intended independence of the judicial branch.

True to the times, it’s very much a men-only world, with women confined to secretarial and wifely roles, and only one justice, Marshall (Danny Glover), hails from a minority background. All the same, most of the justices (their average age is around 80) happily put aside their differences for regular Friday afternoon porno screenings, supposedly on the lookout for obscene material — apparently an authentic occurrence, according to the source book by Max Wallace and Howard L. Bingham, very loosely adapted by Shawn Slovo (“Catch a Fire”).

When the Ali case comes before them, Burger, under pressure from Nixon, tries to politic his fellow judges into throwing the case out, upholding Ali’s conviction and condemning him to jail, but the more liberal justices, like William J. Brennan Jr. (Peter Gerety), argue persuasively to hear the case. Aware that the tide is turning against the Vietnam War itself, the justices agree to make Ali’s a test case about conscientious objection and the definitions that justify it. Harlan initially sides with Burger, but noble-minded Connolly tries to change his mind at the last minute by digging out legal precedents that strengthen Ali’s position.

As with the recent “Lincoln,” anyone passingly familiar with the events in question will already know the outcome, so suspense is less the point than the moral debates at hand, filtered through the sieve of political gamesmanship played at the highest levels of power. Frears and Slovo aren’t afraid to get very technical indeed about legal niceties, which will at least guarantee interest from briefs, law students and armchair jurists when the film is broadcast.

Everyone else may feel baffled and a little bored, especially since Frears’ helming here is at its most conventionally televisual, all predictable shot-reverse-shots and flat lighting, unburdened by much stylistic flair. The thesps are all solid, especially Langella and Plummer, but they’re hardly stretched. What can they do when the dialogue throws up such tawdry cliches as the one where Connolly observes that Harlan’s “changed,” only to get the solemn reply “No, you changed me.” At least the archival footage provides always-welcome reminders as to why Ali himself was indeed the greatest.

Cannes Film Review: 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings), May 22, 2013. Running time: 97 MIN.

Production

(U.S.-U.K.-Germany) An HBO Films presentation of a Rainmark Films production in association with Sakura Films. (International sales: HBO, Los Angeles.) Produced by Scott Ferguson. Executive producers, Tracey Scoffield, Frank Doelger, Jonathan Cameron. Co-producer, David Tanner.

Crew

Directed by Stephen Frears. Screenplay, Shawn Slovo, based on the book by Max Wallace, Howard L. Bingham. Camera (color, B&W, HD), Jim Denault; editor, Mick Audsley; music, George Fenton; music supervisor, Evyen J. Klean; production designer, Dan Davis; art director, Michael Ahern; set decorator, Andrew Baseman; costume designer, Molly Maginnis; sound (stereo), William Sarokin; supervising sound editor, Jack Wittaker; re-recording mixer, Mike Dowson; visual effects supervisor, John Bair; visual effects, Phosphen; stunt coordinator, Stephen A. Pope; assistant director, Michael Steele; casting, Kathleen Chopin, Victoria Thomas.

With

Christopher Plummer, Benjamin Walker, Frank Langella, Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Barry Levinson, Peter Gerety, Pablo Schreiber, Sam Edelstein, Muhammad Ali, Ben Steinfeld.

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