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I was perusing On Demand yesterday and came across this movie that was made for HBO. My wife and I decided to watch it over lunch and it was one of those movies that was way better than we could have imagined because there was zero hype of this movie. We knew nothing about it, not even the outcome of the decision by the Supreme Court. We had totally forgotten about that case and its impact on Muhammad Ali and his rise to iconic status in American history. After the movie was over I looked up Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan II and found that by Hollywood standards the movie was pretty factual. It was heartbreaking in places. Christopher Plummer does a great job as a conservative judge with a love of the law, and a love of the clerks who worked for him. Frank Langella was also good as Warren Burger who was the politician on the court and took daily phone calls from Richard Nixon. I was surprised by the less than sympathetic portrait of Thurgood Marshall. He comes across as knowing the law but somewhat of a slacker. The movie rightfully so sticks to archival footage of Ali and that alone is almost enough justification to watch this movie. He was far more than just a great heavyweight boxing champion. He represented the changes going on in America. The only weak point in the movie is the interplay between the Supreme Court clerks. It was the least interesting part of the movie. Plummer and Langella make this movie. They are perfect in their roles. If you like real life legal drama, this is a movie worth seeing. Nice to have movies that exceed one's expectations.
I remember the Supreme Court becoming a lightning rod during the presidency of Richard Nixon, when two of his appointees were repudiated by the Senate. I also remember the lengthy hiatus of Muhammed Ali from the ring. And I remember the passions of the 1960's and early 70's. This movie took me back to those days. However, the movie is more about the Supreme Court and the personal relationships between a group of senior jurists, some liberal and some conservative, who divide over the issue of Mujhammed Ali and his right to refuse to serve in the armed forces at a time when conscription was compulsory for most males. This is far from a convincing movie but it is enlivened by the newsreels of Muhammed Ali, a formidable figure in and out of the ring; President Richard Nixon; and the youth who confronted the established order. In this movie, the fight was on a court divided between the left and right, with a Chief Justice who wanted to avoid a difficult decision. The court appears to be made up of scatterbrained and feeble old men who are not inclined to take risks. I don't know how historically accurate this movie is but the Supreme Court is shown as an old boys club, not a group of serious jurists who form a third branch of government. It was made up of all men with only one black, Thurgood Marshall. I found it hard to watch the depiction of Judge Hugo Black as someone seemingly in the throes of senility. I believe in his day he was a great Justice. Frank Langella plays a rather staid, unimaginative and out of touch Chief Justice named Warren Burger, the man who succeeded the great Earl Warren. Christopher Plummer plays Justice John Harlan, a southern conservative who has a passion for the law. He hires a young man who advises him to rule in favour of Ali and his conscientious objector status, following the precedent set in 1955 for the Jehovah's Witnesses. The movie makes the liberal wing look far more sympathetic than their conservative counterparts, who sense no need for the court to rule on the case. But the Justices were capable of following a leader like John Harlan, who showed leadership by ruling on the basis of legal precedent and breaking rank with his boss who wanted a Court that would follow his orders. British Director Stephen Frears shows the Supreme Court as a branch of government that was able to move out of its own comfort zone in spite of itself.
The movie was very accurate to the actual story. The use of actual footage from interviews with Ali was very informative and made the movie more creditable. Because the movie was based on the U.S. Supreme Court Justices, there was no need to actually cast someone to play Muhammad Ali and because of this the movie was far better. Because I was just a teenager when the events of this movie actually played out, there is information in the movie that I wasn't aware of, such as Justice John Marshall Harlan II's fight with cancer. The movie is really a must see for anyone who grew up watching the Ali, Forman and Frazier fights of the time. They were the main reasons boxing was so popular in the 70's.
What I enjoyed most about this movie, it wasn't dramatic. It wasn't polished. It was real. It was factual. It shows us that life isn't full of glitz. It shows us that real life the hours and days are long. The conflict is real. I loved that all of Ali's footage was actual footage. It was well done. I enjoyed the different layers of story lines. You had the SCJ, the interns, the Justices with their staffs, you had the support staff and the families. It was welcomed to see the "behind the scenes" office interactions along with the times at their houses. I appreciated the personal touch they showed in dealing with a mental illness and how that wore on the Justice, along with his own physical battle. I came across it yesterday on HBO and was instantly drawn in. It was like a great book. I sat down and couldn't stop watching until it was over. We need more movies like this one.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It's rare that an HBO film disappoints, and this film is no exception.
Of course, you may be surprised that no actor plays Mohammad Ali; but
he is generously represented with actual news footage from the time.
While the film is about the boxer's quest to go to the Supreme Court to
have has conviction on not fulfilling the draft decision overturned,
the real story here is how the Supreme Court (may) work.
And so, the primary reason to watch this film is to enjoy a number of very fine performances by veteran actors who are portraying Supreme Court justices. And chief among these...although he was not the Chief Justice...is the performance of Christopher Plummer as Justice John Harlan...in this case the pivotal vote. Although I didn't particularly enjoy Plummer in his early years in Hollywood, the more he aged, the more I enjoyed his performances. He is a treasure! Frank Langella is also superb here as Chief Justice Warren Burger. Danny Glover appears as Justice Thurgood Marshall, although his part is small because Marshall recused himself from the case. Barry Levinson is very good as Justice Potter Stewart. Ed Begley, Jr. plays Justice Harry Blackmun, and I can't quite get my mind around whether or not his performance is a solid one. Harris Yulin is very good as Justice William O. Douglas. Peter Gerety -- here as Justice William J. Brennan -- is a fine character actor that I always enjoy. Fritz Weaver -- at age 87 -- is good as Justice Hugo Black. Dana Ivey again plays a secretary, and while her part is small she's always a joy to watch.
How accurate is the film? Who knows. But it's enjoyable to watch this ensemble of actors...it all runs like clockwork. Recommended.
It should suffice to observe that Stephen Frears, the crew and cast took on a subject that no other film-maker chose to, and did so commendably. As Justice Harlan, Christopher Plummer also does a very commendable job. I also did not particularly find Mr. Plummer's early performances suitable for the screen, from 'Inside Daisy Clover' to 'Somewhere in Time'. Somehow, the hammiest roles early on were preferable (he does what the script demands as Commodus in 'The Fall of the Roman Empire' and his Atahualpa in 'Royal Hunt of the Sun' is actually much fun: "They EAT Him!"). As his art has matured ('Silent Partner'; 'Dolores Claiborne'; 'The Insider'; 'The Last Station'; 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo'), the more I have looked forward to his performances, as here. Still, while I understand the politics of casting better-known actors in leading roles, I regret that Harris Yulin, another great too long under-appreciated in movies who plays Justice Wm. O Douglas, was not cast as Justice Harlan. Mr. Yulin ('Clear and Present Danger'; 'Training Day'; 'Looking for Richard') will always bring to his characters, villains included, a delicate gravitas that does not belie the humanity of their circumstances: different surely, if not better or preferable to Mr. Plummer's characterization - but audiences would certainly have regarded it very well-tailored for him.
This is not a biography of Mohammad Ali, but it is his fight against American establishment, There was a great performance by Christopher Plumber but best performance of the movie was Ali's himself. I always remained a fan of Mohammad Ali but after seeing this I have become an even greater admirer of him. At end of movie when presenter asks him what will he do against the people/administration who has taken so many precious years of his life, Ali's answer was description of his whole life. A worth watching movie, not due to historical facts but due to "Ali's Character against Injustice". I would give it 10 but too much focus on unrelated scenes like fight between the clerks convinced me to give it a 9.
Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is at best a mediocre film, despite the talents of its director and cast and at times it is downright awful. This is mainly due to the shoddy writing. There were times when I laughed out loud from some of the weaker lines of dialogue. The story also lacks focus as we are constantly lead away from the subject of Ali's court case. Further, besides the main two justices (Plummer and Langella respectively), the other characters are practically non-existent. Some of the blame can definitely rest on the poor editing, the main problem of which is the seemingly random interjection of old TV footage of Ali in interviews etc. I felt this made the film very disjointed.
The filmmaking (or rather, videomaking) by Stephen Frears is not particularly noteworthy, nor are some of the secondary performances. Still, the film allows one a rather fascinating peek at various forces (personal and cultural) influencing the Supreme Courts decision with regard to the legality of Mohammed Ali's refusal to serve in the U.S. army. As noted elsewhere, the segments involving the competition between interns are very much a distraction. Only one of the interns is of any narrative importance and his thread could easily have been played out in scenes between him and Judge Harlan (Christopher Plummer). In short, view this for the history, rather than the art.
While being an interesting look at a major event in American history, I
thought the general mood of the film didn't really mesh with the
The locker room bro moments of the clerks felt more like a distraction in my mind from what was really interesting. I understand that throughout the move there's an attempt to compare and contrast the generational differences between the justices and clerks, but really it came out more muddled than insightful. But hey, maybe that's just me.
I think a more interesting movie would have been a more focused study into the closed-off perspective of the justice's world. A closed-room style would have fitted well. The hippies lined up outside made to seem distant and strange, even to the blue justices.
The movie also seemed a little closed off and lacking much room for audience pondering. Mohammed Ali was valid for conscientious objector status. No question. This might have been the case, but I'd rather come to that conclusion myself.
Anyway, it was a fine TV movie. Definitely worth a watch.
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