What To Watch: HBO's 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight'


Sports movies are a celebrated and beloved genre in filmmaking. The best of them distill the nuances of sport into an easily digestible narrative that communicates the passion for a game, the heartache of loss and the ecstasy of victory.

When it comes to boxing, these films have covered everything from the rise of the champion ("Million Dollar Baby"), the downfall of a heavyweight ("Requiem for a Heavyweight"), the never-was ("On the Waterfront") and a a hundred other stories, even thinly veiled allegories of the Cold War ("Rocky IV").

But sports films seldom venture into the courtroom. Why? Because all too often the law is as appealing as a rained out baseball game. Sports are drama. One way or the other they pull or push, lift or sink their viewers. The law, even for its practitioners, usually lacks that visceral impact.

That is what makes "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight" so special.

HBO's recent film — not documentary — production is about the greatest fight outside the ring that Muhammad Ali ever faced. It's about whether or not he'd spend time in jail for refusing to go to Vietnam because of his religious beliefs and claim to conscientious objector status.

There are few sports figures in history so compelling that a (good) film can be made about their lawsuits. At best you have biopics about athletes that include their legal troubles, but that is very different from what HBO has created here. This film isn't filled with interesting courtroom scenes where you get to see Muhammad Ali recite his witty poetry and sharp barbs against the government. Not at all. Footage of Ali is carefully chosen and used very sparingly to situate the viewer in a moment in time and to link the main pieces of the story. Ali's face is garnish, not the entree.

This film is really about the Supreme Court, how its justices and clerks reacted to Ali's refusal to go to war, what they thought of the heavyweight champion's decision to change his name, whether they believed the Black Muslims were in fact a religion, and if Ali stood for more than just Ali.

Having watched the film, I found it incredibly difficult, impossible actually, to think of another sports figure who would bring the same level of excitement and intrigue to the Supreme Court. It's easy to make a trial court seem dramatic — TV shows like "Law and Order" have made millions, if not billions, by filming jury reactions, cross-examinations of lying witnesses and the impassioned closing statements of dedicated lawyers. But only a tiny fraction of films ever step into the halls of an appeal court where the theater of the trial all but disappears. In its pace is cold and somber reasoning of wise judges, something not well-suited for film.

But this story is about Ali. And as with most things Ali, this film finds success where others would likely have failed precisely because it's about Ali. His story not only makes the Supreme Court compelling but also the individuals who make up the court. HBO has combined a sports film with a legal drama to create a movie that is exciting, clever, and most importantly of all, something worthy and almost as unexpectedly wonderful as "The Greatest" himself.

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