×

TV Review: ‘Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight’

HBO's historical movie chronicles fascinating story in a mundane way

With:

Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Benjamin Walker, Peter Gerety, Barry Levinson, Fritz Weaver, John Bedford Lloyd, Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Harris Yulin, Pablo Schreiber

The subject matter is so intriguing as to exacerbate the sense that “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” is something of a letdown, dramatically speaking. Anchored by Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer’s performances as Supreme Court Justices Warren Berger and John Harlan, this Vietnam-era story focuses on the court battle over Ali’s conscientious-objector status as a devout Muslim, which derailed the champ’s boxing career. Filled with interesting tidbits, director Stephen Frears’ film never quite coalesces — floating like a butterfly, all right, but delivering so little sting as to barely leave a mark.

Ali himself is presented only in archival newsreel footage and interviews, while the nine justices hash out what to do about his conviction and appeal. Cast to the hilt, in addition to Langella (who has now played both Richard Nixon and his Chief Justice) as the avuncular, patrician Berger, with Plummer as the wily, ailing Harlan, there’s Fritz Weaver (Hugo Black), Harris Yulin (William O. Douglas), Peter Gerety (William Brennan Jr.), director Barry Levinson (Potter Stewart), John Bedford Lloyd (Byron “Whizzer” White), Ed Begley Jr. (Harry Blackmun) and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him Danny Glover (Thurgood Marshall, who recused himself from the case).

The entry point, however, is less about the justices than one of Harlan’s clerks, Kevin Connolly (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter’s” Benjamin Walker), who butts heads with the snooty Ivy Leaguers, forges a close bond with his boss, and also attempts to steer Harlan’s reasoning toward Ali’s side. (For a second take, by the way, see Leslie Felperin’s review when the movie screened at Cannes.)

That portion of the film, alas, as written by Shawn Slovo, is stilted and flat, leaving not enough time with the justices, who — in the made-for’s most amusing moment — regularly retire downstairs to watch X-rated movies in order to decide on pornography cases. (It was Stewart who famously said, “I know it when I see it.”)

Despite the allure of getting a bird’s-eye-view at the often puzzling and arcane machinations of the Supreme Court — during one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history, no less — the movie will be most interesting for those who can parse what amount to its asides, like the fact Blackmun (who would ultimately write the Roe v. Wade decision) is perceived as being constantly aligned with the conservative Berger, who freely acknowledges his awareness of politics and friendship with Nixon in steering court decisions.

Admittedly, it’s hard not to root for a movie audacious enough to prominently feature so many actors in their 70s and 80s, including the 83-year-old Plummer, who isn’t even the oldest among the principal players. (That distinction belongs to fellow octogenarian Weaver as Black, a legendary jurist who remained on the court until eight days before his death at the age of 85.)

Nevertheless, if Frears’ earnest interpretation isn’t quite a missed opportunity, it’s an under-realized one. Yes, it’s worth watching for the historical moment it represents — particularly since that moment continues to echo through to the present — but it’s less compelling than it might have been.

Not that I can fully explain what would have made “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” more satisfying. But I’d know it when I see it.

Popular on Variety

TV Review: 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight'

(Movie; HBO, Sat. Oct. 5, 8 p.m.)

Production:

Filmed in New York by Rainmark Films in association with Sakura Films.

Crew:

Executive producers, Tracey Scoffield, Frank Doelger, Jonathan Cameron; producer, Scott Ferguson; director, Stephen Frears; writer, Shawn Slovo, based on the book by Howard L. Bingham, Max Wallace; camera, Jim Denault; production designer, Dan Davis; editor, Mick Audsley; music, George Fenton; casting, Kathleen Chopin, Victoria Thomas. 98 MIN.

Cast:

Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Benjamin Walker, Peter Gerety, Barry Levinson, Fritz Weaver, John Bedford Lloyd, Danny Glover, Ed Begley Jr., Harris Yulin, Pablo Schreiber

More TV

  • DANCING WITH THE STARS - "2019

    Sean Spicer on 'Dancing With the Stars' Backlash: 'I'm Used to That'

    Former White House press secretary Sean Spicer isn’t letting the controversy surrounding his appearance on “Dancing With the Stars” get to him. “It’s nothing new,” Spicer told Variety after he made his “DWTS” debut on Monday night. ABC faced quick backlash following the announcement last month that Spicer had been cast on the show. Even [...]

  • 'This Is Us' Season 4 Adds

    'This Is Us' Season 4 Adds Tim Matheson as Rebecca's Father

    “This Is Us” Season 4 has cast Tim Matheson in a key recurring role, Variety has confirmed. Matheson will play Dave, the father of Mandy Moore’s Rebecca Pearson. This will mark the first time Rebecca’s father has been seen onscreen in the hit NBC drama series, which also stars Milo Ventimiglia, Sterling K. Brown, Chrissy [...]

  • THIS IS US -- "Don't Take

    NBC Tops 52-Week Nielsen Season, CBS Reclaims Total Viewers Crown

    NBC is set to end the 2018-2019 Nielsen season as the top broadcast network in the ratings, while CBS has reclaimed the total viewers crown from the Peacock. Last year, NBC had overtaken CBS in total viewers for the first time in 16 years, but CBS reclaimed the title thanks to solid performances by the [...]

  • George Schweitzer, President of CBS Marketing

    Amazon's Mike Benson Will Succeed George Schweitzer as CBS Marketing Chief

    George Schweitzer has enjoyed a broad career out of a very narrow practice. He finds new ways to get people to watch more TV. Those methods can range wide. He once tucked a paper-thin interactive video player into the pages of Entertainment Weekly so readers could sample new CBS shows. He got supermarkets to use [...]

  • Kane Brown 52nd Annual CMA Awards,

    CMT Boosts Kane Brown, Luke Combs, Dan + Shay as 'Artists of the Year'

    Country music’s youngest superstars don’t always catch a break with the CMA Awards. When the latest slate of nominations was announced, Kane Brown had none, and Luke Combs had a far-from-leading three. But CMT is making up the difference by including these two ascendants as part of their annual “CMT Artists of the Year” slate, [...]

  • Timothy Olyphant Once Upon a Time

    'Fargo' Season 4 Casts Timothy Olyphant in Recurring Guest Role

    Timothy Olyphant has been cast in the upcoming fourth season of “Fargo,” Variety has confirmed. Olyphant will appear in a recurring guest star role as a character named Dick “Deafy” Wickware. It was previously announced that Chris Rock would star in the fourth season of the critically-acclaimed anthology series. Other stars of “Fargo” Season 4 are: [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content