When Muhammad Ali -- a boxing icon and outspoken Black Muslim minister -- refused to fight in the Vietnam War, he was sentenced to five years in prison and slapped with a $100,000 fine. For years, his lawyers worked on appeal after appeal until finally the case made its way to the Supreme Court in 1971. The new HBO film, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight, dramatizes the maneuvering within the Supreme Court to allow the case to even be heard and then takes us all the way through to the final decision. For director Stephen Frears, this would seem to be a prime opportunity to make an American-set companion to his fact-based dramas about British politics, The Deal and The Queen, drawing back the curtain and revealing the machinations of our government.
Unfortunately, Greatest Fight writer Shawn Slovo (Captain Corelli's Mandolin) doesn't possess the same level of artistry as Deal and Queen writer Peter Morgan. While Frears has assembled an impressive cast (well, HBO TV-movie impressive, at least), Slovo has given them almost nothing to work with. As conservative Chief Justice Warren Burger, who doesn't feel the Ali case is even worth hearing, Frank Langella seems to be stuck doing a one-dimensional redux of his Richard Nixon from Frost/Nixon (which, yes of course, was coincidentally written by Peter Morgan). Christopher Plummer comes off a little better as Justice John Harlan II, whose conservative leanings do not keep him from re-examining Ali's case through the lens of legal precedence, even once it looks like the majority is going to vote to uphold Ali's conviction and send him to jail. The rest of the justices are given one personality trait each: William Brennan (awesome character actor Peter Gerety) is a concerned lefty, Byron White (John Bedford Lloyd) cheats at basketball, Hugo Black (Fritz Weaver) is a kooky old sparkplug, Harry Blackmun (Ed Begley, Jr.) is so contemplative as to be indecisive... even Thurgood Marshall (Danny Glover), who recused himself from the Ali decision because of his distaste for the Black Muslim movement, is presented as little more than a sketch -- watching daytime soaps while the others squabble over decisions.
As a way into the world of the Supreme Court, Slovo has concocted Kevin Connelly (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), who comes to work for Justice Harlan as a new clerk. With the average age of the Supreme Court Justices hovering around 70, we are given the impression that the clerks pretty much do all the work. The world of the clerks has a slightly clique-ish high school vibe, with Connelly, a Democrat, rubbing his conservate co-workers the wrong way. In the end, all these workplace details fail to coalesce into a distinctive portrait of the world we are meant to be peering in on.
And what about Muhammad Ali? Maybe realizing it might feel like a bait-and-switch to put Muhammad Ali's name in the title and then just show eight white men arguing over what it means to be a conscientious objector for ninety minutes, Frears interjects archive footage of the fighter, rhyming and boxing, every five minutes or so. Frears tries to tell the parallel story of Ali being stripped of his heavyweight title for his beliefs, and his eventual return to the ring shortly before his case was heard by the Supreme Court. It kind of works, mostly because Ali is a force of nature, even in media-soundbite form.
In the end, Greatest Fight's cast -- which also features Harris Yulin, filmmaker Barry Levinson, and (briefly) Bob Balaban -- is the main reason to watch. While the thin script too often overstates the capital-I Importance of its subject matter, the actors manage to keep scenes fairly light and entertaining. In other words, if you tune in to HBO one day and this movie is on, you could do worse than to watch some of it.