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.