You would not think that a movie that focuses on the internal deliberations of the United States Supreme Court would be able to hold the attention of a viewing audience of anything other than legal geeks, but HBO has pulled it off in its new movie: Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight. For U.S. Supreme Court scholars, American history buffs, escapees from the 60’s and/or Ali aficionados, I recommend that you give it a look on HBO. I was very pleasantly surprised.
First of all, the ensemble cast does a fantastic job. One of the characteristics of anyone playing the role of a U.S. Supreme Court Justice is that you are well-seasoned, so the cast is made up of screen veterans. Frank Langella as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Christopher Plumber as Justice John Harlan (it was Harlan who swayed the court to overturn Ali’s conviction for refusing induction into the U.S. military during the Vietnam War) are superb, but the rest of the cast contributes as well, including a surprising turn in front of the camera by Director Barry Levinson as Justice Potter Stewart. The one possible exception is Ed Begley, Jr. as Justice Harry Blackmun, the newest member of the court. Yes, Blackmun underwent an ideological shift once he came on the court but he didn’t waiver on every single sentence, as Begley’s Blackmun seems to do.
I, like everyone else, would like to have seen more of Danny Glover as Justice Thurgood Marshall but there is a reason that we didn’t. The real Justice Marshall had been Solicitor General of the United States when the case began and therefore recused himself from the proceedings. Marshall’s recusal set the stage for the remaining eight justices to decide a case that had a significant racial backdrop without the one African American member of the court participating – a fact that is handled with appropriate subtlety by the justices.
It is a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the highest court in the land – the justices’ relationships with their law clerks, with each other, their awareness of the history they are creating, their view of the role of the court, whether they can be apolitical in a political world, are all dramatized. While there have been other cases that portrayed proceedings before the Supreme Court – The People v. Larry Flynt among them – Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight is somewhat unique in that it shows the justices outside of the courtroom. The comparison to Twelve Angry Men seems inevitable, but the setting and the nature of the debate is much different. For one thing, the personal relationships between the justices are well-established as opposed to twelve strangers who deliberate in the Henry Fonda movie.
The cinematic device of interspersing clips of the real Ali is inspired. Ali is shown speaking more than fighting, since he had been stripped of his title shortly after he refused induction and did not fight for the 3-1/2 years that the case wound its way through the courts. Not only does the archival Ali footage break up the scenes of justices and law clerks trying to figure out how handle such a highly politically charged case that involves a war that by that time was extremely unpopular and a heavyweight champion who was becoming increasingly popular, but it is also a wonderful reminder of how Ali got to be Ali. He is as entertaining as he is passionate and committed to his cause. For those too young to remember Ali pre-Parkinson’s disease, it provides a glimpse of how Ali, over time, turned his critics and detractors into admirers – with a significant assist from the Supreme Court.