Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, the HBO movie directed by Stephen Frears, takes a different tack than most previous Ali movies. The film takes place outside the ring and inside the courtroom, portraying the battle surrounding Ali’s refusal to serve in the war in Vietnam and his 1967 conviction for draft evasion. His appeal of that conviction went all the way to the Supreme Court, prompting a national surge of support for the boxer.
Which is where that horrible title comes in: The film will focus not on Ali vs. Liston, or Ali vs. Frazier, but on Clay v. United States.
The film looks decent enough, mostly because it roped in some A-list talent: Christopher Plummer as Justice Marshall Harlan, Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger, Danny Glover as Justice Thurgood Marshall. But the most interesting casting choice involves who isn’t in the movie—namely, Ali. Director Stephen Frears (The Queen, High Fidelity, etc.) decided not to cast an actor in the role, and instead depends entirely on archival footage of Ali. It’s been said that playing the larger-than-life Ali is impossible, but this could be a step too far.
And it’s already a bold and risky move to put all the attention on the judicial proceedings, rather than the charismatic, made-for-movies antics of the most famous boxer of all time. Still, it could pay off—after all, successful biopics like Michael Mann’s Ali have mined the man’s life for much of its best material. And part of what made Ali so transfixing was the significant role he played in the racial and political unrest of the time, a role never more prominent than when he was protesting the draft.
We’ll see come October, but it’s worth noting this isn’t this year’s only film about Ali and Vietnam. The Trials of Muhammad Ali, by Kartemquin Films, opened last week, and some are already calling it The Champ’s greatest moment on screen.