HBO’s movie “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” directed by Stephen Frears, manages to revive a debate that was once pressing and undeniably passionate — and then somehow flattens it and makes it a slightly less interesting bout. It’s a Supreme Court movie that even the most fervent SCOTUS junkies might find underwhelming.
What happened was this: In 1966, not long after he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay, Muhammad Ali came out as a conscientious objector to the escalating Vietnam War. Based on his belief that Allah forbids the faithful from killing and fighting in any war (except a holy war), Ali, who was then 24 years old and the reigning heavyweight champ, refused to register for the draft.
While his draft-dodging felony conviction and appeal worked their way to the Supreme Court, Ali lived in professional exile. This is all capably and even artfully portrayed with vintage news and talk-show clips that have been given a nice late-’60s fritz of jerky antenna signals — grainy footage of boxing matches and sweaty, rhyme-filled press conferences and interviews on “The Dick Cavett Show.” This means that nobody in the film has the next-to-impossible job of playing the part of Ali (so relax, Will Smith). It all has the makings of an interesting sports documentary that’s probably been made more than once.
But “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” (airing Saturday at 8 p.m.) is instead a legal drama about life in the hallowed halls of Chief Justice Warren E. Burger’s court circa 1970-71, as the Ali case arrives in search of a final ruling. As the movie makes bluntly clear, we are at a cultural and social threshold — constant antiwar demonstrations, clerks with shaggy haircuts and wider lapels and all that. I do commend the filmmakers on the absence of a Hendrix guitar lick at any point.
Burger (Frank Langella, who has already played Nixon in “Frost/Nixon”), is seen in constant communication with the White House, zealously protective of a status-quo agenda. His fellow justices are mostly in line with him, including an ailing Justice John Harlan II (Christopher Plummer).
They’re all here, by the way — nine members of what was then a very different court: Harry Blackmun (Ed Begley Jr.); Byron White (John Bedford Lloyd); Potter Stewart (Barry Levinson); William Brennan Jr. (Peter Gerety) and the rest. Danny Glover plays Thurgood Marshall, who recused himself from the Ali decision because he had been involved with the case early on as solicitor general. Behind closed doors, Glover’s Marshall grouses about black Muslim views on race and politics — he clearly wants nothing to do with it, even though much of what influenced the court’s final decision (in Ali’s favor) had to do, the movie makes clear, with race. We’re left with an eerily Clarence Thomasesque snapshot of a largely disengaged Marshall, watching his daytime soap operas in chambers.
Benjamin Walker plays Kevin Connolly, Harlan’s newly hired clerk, whose idealism and willingness to challenge Harlan help sway the eventual opinion from 5 to 3 to a unanimous eight. The Connolly character is a fictional composite of several clerks — a necessary invention meant to anchor the story and give it some personal, “Quiz Show”-like narrative stake. (More personal, I guess, than Ali’s stake.)
If you’re going to invent someone to stick in the middle of a landmark judgment, fine, do what you must, but you should make him a deeper and more compelling character and not stick someone as bland as Walker (“Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter”) in the role. As written and performed, Connolly is a cliche surrounded by other cliches, such as the ambitious Ivy League-educated clerk with the bad Kennedy accent (Pablo Schreiber) or the brilliant nebbish in the opposite desk wearing the oversize yarmulke (Ben Steinfeld). There are times when “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” feels too much like a substandard episode of “The Paper Chase.” The first half-hour is an awkward set-up, more Wikipedia entry than story, as characters speak to one another in long paragraphs of legal exposition.
The movie relaxes a bit after that, allowing room for Langella and Plummer to do what they usually do best. Langella’s Burger struggles with what seems to be a case of unintentional, old-school racism and disdain for civil protest; Plummer’s Harlan seems motivated by his own mortality, recognizing a world that is changing as he departs it. Some of this is fairly moving, in a nostalgic sense.
“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” which is based on a book by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace, is best when it revels in the astonishing whiteness and occasionally ridiculous ways of yesterday’s high court. (None of it was filmed in Washington, I feel obligated to note. Nothing ever is. Even the Supreme Court building can be knocked off elsewhere.) It’s fun to watch these old men, whose average age at the time was 71, bicker over cases and then retreat to the basement to watch reels of dirty movies in order to define pornography as a know-it-when-I-see-it kind of thing. It also has the effect of making the justices seem supremely antique and out of touch, which, as many of their rulings still reflect, they weren’t.
(100 minutes) airs Saturday at 8 p.m. on HBO, with encores.