Cannes 2013: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight Review

Rating: It seems certain directors have seen the future, and it’s HBO shaped. After Steven Soderbergh’s exceptional Behind The Candelabra...

Simon Gallagher

NUFC Editor

Muhammad Ali

Rating: ★★★☆☆

It seems certain directors have seen the future, and it’s HBO shaped. After Steven Soderbergh’s exceptional Behind The Candelabra  screened here, another well-known figure from film-making unveiled his own HBO-made film.

Soderbergh said that he made Candelabra for the premium channel because it afforded him more creative freedom and less interruptions from a studio, and that film turned out to be a great thing, and similar hopes weren’t far from Stephen Frears’ made-for-TV portrait of the Supreme Court’s decision over Muhammad Ali’s infamous refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

In all honesty, the two projects aren’t all that similar: Soderbergh’s film could have made it to the big screen, but Frears slower, more proceedurally-toned offering is perfectly suited to a premium TV channel. It is occasionally bogged down in the impenetrable (or at least not entirely entertaining) language of legislation, and a lot of the time is spent discussing the intricacies of law.

Between those sequences, we get archive footage of Ali, shot at the time of his exile from the sport and the Supreme Court case, as well as more personal focus on Justice John Marshall Harlan, who was pivotal in the decision to free Ali, who was diagnosed with cancer as well as coping with his wife’s degenerating mental health.

The other Supreme Court judges are played by an eye-watering collection of acting talent – royalty in fact – with Frank Langella, Harris Yulin, Danny Glover, and Ed Begley Junior among them, and offer a watchable, if not entirely irresistible dynamic that feels homely as well as authoritative, and which is far more appealing because of the collective star power around the table.

All-in-all it’s a strong, if unspectacular piece – an interesting, untold element to a very famous story that undoubtedly deserved to be told, and this feels like the most successful way to have played it. It might not sting like a bee, but the story never really called for that, and the central acting performances are assured enough to convince that it is more than worthy of a watch when it lands on HBO.