Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer in Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

One of the things I've appreciated most about HBO's original movies is that most of them – in recent years, anyway – don't feel like standard made-for-TV movies. HBO produces films that feel like they could compete with the awards season heavy hitters being tossed out by prestigious indie distributors, not the sort of cornball fluff one associates with the phrase, “TV movie.” On the surface, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight has all the trappings of another HBO gem – an esteemed director (Stephen Frears, who gave us Dangerous Liasons and The Grifters), an excellent cast, a compelling historical premise, etc. Unfortunately, the end result feels inescapably... well... like a TV movie.

In 1967, famed boxer Muhammad Ali refused induction into the U.S. Army, claiming that he could not participate in a war for religious reasons (Ali was one of the country's most prominent Muslims at the time). He was quickly convicted of draft evasion, banned from boxing for three years and given a five-year prison sentence. However, Ali was able to stay out of prison while the case was being appealed. Ali remained in the public eye during this period, appearing on talk shows to plead his case, starring in Broadway productions and speaking at colleges across the nation to speak out against the Vietnam War. As the years passed, the American public grew increasingly sympathetic to Ali's cause – not because they had any strong respect for the religion of Islam, but because they, too, had begun to feel that the war was unjust. In 1971, Ali's case finally reached the Supreme Court.

Intriguingly, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is mostly uninterested in Ali himself, reducing his presence in the story to a handful of colorful archival clips. Instead, the focus is placed on the United States Supreme Court and their assorted underlings as they contemplate a complicated high-profile case. As such, it belongs in the same category as HBO political dramas like Recount and Game Change – a behind-the-scenes look at the politics of politics. Unfortunately, it never quite manages to achieve the same dramatic impact (or insightful character development) offered by those films.

Only two of the nine justices featured in the film make much of an impression. The first is Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (Frank Langella, Frost/Nixon), who feels that the Supreme Court really shouldn't even be bothering with the case. The second is Justice John Marshall Harlan II (Christopher Plummer, The Insider), who has conflicted feelings about the case and is largely preoccupied with tending to his ailing wife (Kathleen Chalfant, Kinsey). The rest of them – despite being played by fine character actors like Harris Yulin (Training Day), Peter Gerety (Leatherheads), Ed Begley, Jr. (Six Feet Under) and, uh, director Barry Levinson (Quiz Show) – feel like talking heads. Danny Glover (Lethal Weapon) turns up briefly as Thurgood Marshall, but alas, he recuses himself from the case and disappears from the movie.

The bulk of the film is occupied by an earnest ethical debate, as the justices bicker about whether or not the war is appropriate and whether Ali's religious objections have any merit. Harlan's idealistic young aide Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter) is determined to find a way to persuade the court to overturn Ali's conviction, and begins conducting a great deal of extracurricular research in an effort to find some measure of historical precedent. Alas, the flat, on-the-nose writing and Frears' disappointingly lackluster direction ensure that this material feels thoroughly routine. Frears struggles to wring much drama or suspense out of the case, instead leaving viewers with a film that's merely blandly informative.

Plummer delivers most of the film's best moments, essaying a man who's slowly beginning to realize how little he cares about the political conventions that have ruled much of his career. Why should he worry about whether a vote makes him look bad? Why should he worry about undercutting the chief justice? Why shouldn't he simply vote the way his conscience dictates? I also enjoy the way Langella captures Burger's habitual egotism and flustered defense mechanisms. These two are old pros who have delivered their share of knockout performances over the course of their long careers, but this time around, their fine work is trapped in a dusty museum piece of a movie. I suppose this is a story worth telling, but Ali's occasional appearances continually remind us that there's a far more colorful, complex, compelling tale unfolding in the background.

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

Rating: ★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 97 minutes
Release Year: 2013