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Case Number 27057

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Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight

HBO // 2013 // 97 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Michael Nazarewycz (Retired) // March 8th, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Michael Nazarewycz floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.

The Charge

Some fights are bigger than the ring.

Opening Statement

It's the Supreme Court and Muhammad Ali in one film. You had me at "Clay v. United States."

Facts of the Case

In 1967, heavyweight champion of the world Cassius Clay was drafted by the United States Army to serve in Vietnam. Clay, now going by his Muslim name Muhammad Ali, refused the selective service, citing his status as a conscientious objector because of his Muslim faith. His status was denied by the US government, after which he was stripped of his title, stripped of his boxing license, fined, and arrested. He remained free on appeal. That appeal went all the way to the United States Supreme Court. Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight looks at how that case was handled by the Supremes.

The Evidence

The greatest strength Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight has going for it is its stellar cast of lead and character actors playing the justices, and each is worth a mention (in credits order).

- Christopher Plummer (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo): Justice John Harlan
- Frank Langella (Frost/Nixon): Chief Justice Warren Burger
- Ed Begley Jr. (Best In Show): Justice Harry Blackmun
- Peter Gerety (The War of the Worlds): Justice William Brennan
- Barry Levinson (director, Diner): Justice Potter Stewart
- John Bedford Lloyd (The Bourne Supremacy): Justice Byron 'Whizzer' White
- Fritz Weaver (The Thomas Crown Affair): Justice Hugo Black
- Harris Yulin (Training Day): Justice William O. Douglas
- Danny Glover (The Color Purple): Justice Thurgood Marshall

From top to bottom, these actors deliver. The heavy lifting is done by Plummer, who is outstanding, and Langella, who not only plays a chief justice, but a good friend of President Nixon and a man with a political agenda despite the court's necessity to remain non-partisan. Two-time Oscar-nominated director Stephen Frears (1990's The Grifters and 2006's The Queen) and screenwriter Shawn Slovo (Captain Corelli's Mandolin), with help from this great cast, also do an excellent job in establishing nine unique voices in a very short amount of time, in 97 minutes to be exact.

And therein lies the great problem with the film: the run time. Frears is incredibly ambitious, but he just doesn't have the clock to pull it all off. Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight isn't just a courtroom drama. It's a story about Muhammad Ali the boxer/activist/Muslim, nine Supreme Court justices, one justice's clerk (and some interesting intra-clerical rivalries), the case itself, the politics within the Supreme Court, the politics of the Vietnam War, and race relations in the US. Oh, and throw in a little bit of personal story in there too, about the home life of one of the justices.

It's almost like Frears offers a sampler of storylines, but does so with a definitive beginning and end. This left me with a sense of being cheated out of chance to enjoy more of one thing (the White House facet, the greater legal debate) and skip other things (Justice Harlan's wife's medical problems, the hallway camaraderie of the clerks). I also would have liked to have known more about Harlan's clerk, Kevin Connelly (Benjamin Walker, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter). Connelly uproots his pregnant wife to move to DC to take this clerk job and ultimately saves the day, and we know nothing about him. Given what he's given, Walker offers a decent Capra-esque performance and holds his own opposite Plummer.

Eventually Frears realizes the clock is ticking and takes a 12 Angry Men-on-FF approach to the issue resolution, and while the ending is ultimately reached because of legal technicality, you can't have a dramatization without drama, and the end lacks a little of that.

However, saving this film—in a HUGE way—is the historical footage of Muhammed Ali. Yes, it's another clock-burner, but is it ever worth it. The footage, which covers everything from Ali's glorious ringside bombast to fight footage to his insightful and surprisingly introspective thoughts on faith and war, are mesmerizing. It's amazing how charismatic the fighter is, and Frears brilliantly captures that with wisely-chosen clips that are well-balanced in their distribution through the film.

Both the Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track and the 1.78:1 anamorphic picture are clean and crisp in the "modern day" portions, which, of course, make up a good part of the film. But when Frears runs that archive footage of Ali, the A/V quality is excellent. Whether sparring in the ring or appearing with Dick Cavett, the champ looks and sounds great.

There are no extras on this DVD. But why would there be? It's only history.

Closing Statement

For the documentary footage of Ali, as well as the formidable ensemble playing the justices, Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is worth a look.

The Verdict

Not Guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 80
Audio: 80
Extras: 0
Acting: 95
Story: 70
Judgment: 70

Perp Profile

Studio: HBO
Video Formats:
• 1.78:1 Anamorphic
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Spanish)
• English
• Chinese
• Portuguese
• Spanish
• Thai
Running Time: 97 Minutes
Release Year: 2013
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Drama
• Historical

Distinguishing Marks

• None


• IMDb

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