Early in Pete McCormack's documentary Facing Ali, one of his former rivals notes that Muhammad Ali is "more revered than any fighter... maybe more than any person." That would certainly explain the surplus of documentary films about him; aside from the original, Champions Forever, and the standard-bearer, the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, there's Muhammad Ali: Made in Miami , Thrilla in Manila , Muhammad Ali: The Greatest , Muhammad Ali: Through the Eyes of the World , The Last Round- Chuvalo vs. Ali , Albert Maysles's recent "ESPN 30 for 30" entry Muhammad and Larry, and more, many more. Why does he continue to be such a venerable subject for nonfiction film? Well, first of all, because of his uniquely American story and life--the talented kid who ascended to fame and fortune thanks to his mixture of talent and showbiz bravado, mounted multiple stunning comebacks, but couldn't walk away while he was ahead--and its intersections with the defining events of his generation, the Vietnam War and the struggle for civil rights. He's a fascinating figure, and he was so charismatic and dynamic on camera that he left a treasure trove of archival footage. And then, on top of that, he was the greatest fighter of his or any other time, a brilliant strategist and graceful athlete/aesthete who made brawling into an art.
By choosing to tackle both elements of Ali's greatness, and by adopting a fresh approach by telling Ali's story through the eyes of the men who took him on in the ring, McCormack and his crew certainly set their ambitions high. Indeed, they may try to do too much; though it starts off as more of an impressionistic portrait than a straight biography (exploring the theme of Ali as a person, as an icon, as a mythology), by the time they try to cover the man, his rivals, and the times, it too often ends up playing like an extended highlights reel.
Ten of Ali's former opponents are interviewed: George Chuvalo, Henry Cooper, Ken Norton, George Foreman, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, Leon Spinks, Ron Lyle, Earnie Shavers, and Ernie Terrell. There are brief biographical sketches of the men, and each tells the story of his encounters with Ali (both in and out of the ring). The interviews are handsomely photographed, using a recurring visual motif of putting the men on their feet, talking and jabbing into the handheld camera as they walk back through their battle with "The Greatest."
It helps that many of the men (particularly Chuvalo and Foreman) are exceptionally good storytellers--Foreman's recollection of the moment when he decided to retire, for example, is absolutely riveting. And they're smart guys; the logistical and psychological analysis of his fellow fighters (especially Lyle and Norton) is keen and insightful. The film is impeccably made, fast-paced and inventively constructed, with catchy graphics and clever on-screen text.
But the amount of material that has been covered in earlier films keeps overshadowing what we see on screen. Foreman's first-person play-by-play of the "Rumble in the Jungle" is mesmerizing, but can't compare to the detail of When We Were Kings. The brief examination of the hurtful trash talk between Ali and Frazier can't approach the intellectual depth of Thrilla in Manila. The tragedy of the Holmes match, and how those who cared about Ali watched him literally damaging himself in those final years, is painful here, but doesn't touch Muhammad and Larry. And so forth. As a result, the stories of the lesser-known fighters (like Lyle and Shavers) end up the most compelling.
But that's not to say that Facing Ali isn't imminently watchable; the curiosity factor about these men is sky-high, and the picture boasts a wealth of entertaining archival footage. This brisk tour of his major bouts and biographical high points covers a lot of material, and though there's not much depth, there's an abundance of style and verve.
Facing Ali's new interviews are lovingly shot in anamorphic widescreen with the Red One camera, and look terrific. Cinematographer Ian Kerr makes expert use of light (often top-sourced) and shadow, resulting in a rich, dimensional image, sharply detailed and notable for the deep black levels. The archival footage also looks great, having been painstakingly restored for the film. Overall, a first-class video presentation.
The disc's Dolby Digital 5.1 track is crisp, if slightly undercooked. The interview audio is clear and audible in the center channel (some of the men are a little difficult to understand, and are wisely subtitled), while the music is well-mixed and the archival audio is also nicely cleaned up. There's not much use of the rear channels, but that's not a surprise in a documentary (though some of the fight sound could have probably been distributed to make the soundstage a bit more active).
The disc comes with three featurettes, each of them at least moderately interesting. "Bringing the Fights to Live" (8:22) is a technical featurette, with the filmmakers and Digital Film Central's techs discussing the use of the Red camera and the restoration of the archival footage (with stunning before and after samples). In "Facing Ali: From Book to Screen" (11:21), producer Derik Murray, executive producer Paul Gertz, and director Pete McCormack explain how the project came together and what they wanted to do with it. "After the Bell" (8:54) features brief commentary by the filmmakers on each of the fighters.
Also included are "Animated Trivia Cards" for the ten fighters (with bio, stats, and trivia) and Trailers for additional Lionsgate releases.
Ken Norton says, "To be in the ring with this man called Ali was, to me, an honor." Leon Spinks says it more plainly: "There's only one Ali. There's only one." In the closing passages of Facing Ali, those tributes and memories are genuinely moving, and though the film that precedes them may come up a tad short, it still offers plenty of compelling footage and noteworthy remembrances from its cast of champs.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.