HBO’s ‘Muhammad Ali’ is no knockout

Frank Langella as Justice Warren E. Burger and Christopher Plummer as Chief Justice John Harlan II in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”
Frank Langella as Justice Warren E. Burger and Christopher Plummer as Chief Justice John Harlan II in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.”

Films about historic events only work if they are at least equal parts drama and documentary. Director Stephen Frears and screenwriter Shawn Slovo seem to have forgotten that in “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” airing on HBO Saturday night.

The film is about the historic 1971 U.S. Supreme Court case on Muhammad Ali’s rejected application for exclusion from the military draft on the grounds of being a conscientious objector. Ali had become a boxing champion and media darling in the 1960s, as famous for his fancy footwork in the ring as he was for his bravado and ability to speak in couplets when he was in the media spotlight, which was often.

America got to know him as Cassius Clay, but after taking the world heavyweight championship belt from Sonny Liston, he joined the Nation of Islam and became Muhammad Ali. He based his application for CO status on his Muslim faith. When the application was denied, Ali refused to be drafted, was arrested and convicted of draft evasion, lost his boxing title and didn’t fight again for four years.

The HBO film, based on a book by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace, focuses on the behind-the-scenes debate over Ali’s appeal among the nine members of the Supreme Court. Actually, make that eight, since Justice Thurgood Marshall (Danny Glover) recused himself because he was the Solicitor General when the case was first appealed to federal court.

At first, there seems no chance at all that the appeal will be granted. Only a couple of justices are inclined to at least hear the case, but the patrician chief justice, Warren E. Burger (Frank Langella) and influential Associate Justice John Harlan II (Christopher Plummer) believe the case has no merit.

Of course, it does get heard and although denial of the appeal seemed like a sure thing, it turns out not to be. That happens because of a legal precedent found by Harlan’s clerk, Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), who is so adamant in his belief that Ali was wrongly convicted that he’s ready to resign from his job because of Harlan’s initial intention to side with Burger.

The tide turns, but much less dramatically than it should, and therein lies the fundamental problem with the film. There’s no drama. It’s really dull, except for two elements: First, the performances by Plummer and Langella, in particular, as well as the rest of the cast. This is the Mount Rushmore of great acting sharing the screen together. Langella is arrogant, unyielding, unapologetic for consulting the Nixon White House during the case. Plummer is proud, deliberate but all too keenly aware that time is passing – not just the cultural attitudes toward the war, politics and race, but his own time as well, because his health has deteriorated to the point where he has decided to retire.

The supporting actors are often stunning, even in parts that amount to little more than extended cameos. The great Fritz Weaver as Justice Hugo Black, Barry Levinson as Justice Potter Stewart, Harris Yulin as Justice William O. Douglas, Ed Begley Jr. as Justice Harry Blackman, Dana Ivey as Harlan’s secretary, Kathleen Chalfant as Harlan’s wife, all contribute greatly.

Other than the performances, the film is watchable because of the real Muhammad Ali, who is seen in extensive and absolutely captivating video footage.

The actors make “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” seem better than it is, but the real Ali, with all his youth, vigor, bravado and passion, convinces us that he and his case deserved much better.