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HBO Lands a Combination in 'Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight'
October 4, 2013  | By Gerald Jordan
 

One of the world’s most recognizable figures is an easy sell for documentary or cinematic treatment. So it comes as no surprise that HBO Films would offer a combination in Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight to an 8 p.m. ET Saturday night audience.

In this new HBO telemovie, written by Shawn Slovo and directed by Stephen Frears, documentary film footage of the outspoken heavyweight boxing champion during the time he refused military induction is layered with a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the Supreme Court of the United States, portrayed by an immensely talented cast of the “nine old men” whose decisions shaped a nation.

Led by Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren E. Burger, Ali’s Greatest explores the complex relationships on the court, even with glimpses of their home life, and how the men approached deliberations on the champion’s refusal to answer the draft. All this is told against the background of protest and upheaval over the Vietnam War.

Because it’s an HBO movie and not a Robert Caro biography, so much is abbreviated, and certainly omitted.  But one particular juxtaposition of the justices sitting at conference and documentary footage of Ali presenting his argument almost perfectly puts the boxer before the Supreme Court, making his own case.

In some ways, the movie side is much less compelling when it is left to stand opposite the historic footage of a rapid-fire Ali – both fists and speech – in his prime. The dramatic performances, though, let the audience surmise what might have taken place in the private lives of the men – and, on the highest court, they all were men at that time – whose decisions made history.

Langella’s presentation of the patrician and racial elitist Berger is helped supremely by Christopher Plummer’s rendering of an earthy Justice John Harlan II.

Demeanor is the order of the day on matters inside the Court, and the cast is up to the task. Many of the justices were so obscure outside of legal circles, in the late 1960s and into the ’70s, that this cast could bring them to the screen without much stir. Harris Yulin as Justice William O. Douglas and Fritz Weaver as Justice Hugo Black are convincing, but really, who’d know the difference?

John Bedford Lloyd mimics Justice Byron White, and Ed Begley Jr.’s portrayal of Justice Harry Blackmun seems to work. Two, however, are difficult for an aging baby boomer to digest: Peter Gerety as Justice William Brennan and Danny Glover as Justice Thurgood Marshall. Perhaps Brennan actually was an elfin character to those who knew the inside of the court. Court biographers can duke it out.

Glover captures perfectly the wily machinations that some have attributed to Marshall, even in his decline, but Glover appears nearly a professional athlete next to images of Marshall at that time. Glover nevertheless takes audiences past the stark physical contrasts by applying lessons on how race is lived in America. His being mistaken for an elevator operator, for one thing. His applying the cold compress of reality to justices in their deliberations is another.

Maybe the frat house antics of the clerks – again, all of them men, and, at this time, all of them white – is overstated. Maybe it’s spot-on accurate. Howard Bingham and Max Wallace might have plumbed unimpeachable sources for their book that formed the basis for this film.

Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, by way of historic reminder, probably is more informative than it is entertaining. Each portrayal, though, will prompt viewers to pause and ponder the character and intellect of the current Supreme Court. It’s a fascinating aspect of American government.

 
 
 
 
 
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