By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
By Dennis Romero
Released by Columbia Pictures | Citywide | Opens December 25
GOSFORD PARK | Directed by ROBERT ALTMAN | Written by JULIAN FELLOWES
In Michael Mann‘s Ali, the world’s most famous boxer, training for a rematch with George Foreman that even his sportscaster champion Howard Cosell predicts he will lose, jogs through Kinshasa tailed by chanting African supporters, their fists raised in solidarity. A near-identical sequence in Leon Gast‘s 1996 documentary When We Were Kings shows Muhammad Ali mugging for the camera and exultantly accepting Zaire’s homage as his due while vowing to whup Foreman‘s ass. Mann’s film doesn‘t stint on the braggadocio, but his Ali (Will Smith, in case you hadn’t heard) prowls the city more in wonder than in pride, a little-boy-lost gazing wordlessly not just at the adoring crowds but at the poverty around him, and at the crude murals invoking him as an African, as well as an American, hero. Watching his awed, almost troubled expression, one grasps just how hagiographic was Gast‘s enormously enjoyable documentary, which crafted Ali solely from his charismatic public persona, and from the anxious hero worship of sedentary white guys like George Plimpton and Norman Mailer.
Gast’s film pumps up the myth; Mann‘s seeks to close the gap between the man and the myth. Framed by two of the Greatest’s most heroic moments -- his 1964 victory, at age 22, over Sonny Liston, and the fight a decade later in which he trounced Foreman and took back the heavyweight title -- Ali probes the misery years in between, when Ali‘s notorious refusal to accept induction into the military resulted in federal prosecution for draft evasion, lost him his boxing license for three and a half years, and set off a campaign of vilification by a press and public still wedded to waging war against Vietnam.
Ali is far from dispassionate, neither a docudrama nor, in any strict sense, a biopic. Certainly Mann attends to Ali as construct -- how could he not, when the champ tended to it so diligently himself? -- but he won’t take the public persona as read. Which is why I wouldn‘t put money on the movie’s chances at the box office, for what is Ali now -- conveniently stashed away out of the public eye -- if not an icon? Mann will likely get creamed on historical grounds by the current wave of revisionists bent on branding Ali an ignoramus with only the most rudimentary knowledge of politics, a braggart who treated his fellow black fighters with contempt. Ali is an intensely political film, the work of a white liberal imagination attempting to grasp a crucial decade in American history -- specifically, African-American history -- through the eyes of a black man who helped define it, and was almost destroyed by it.
As the movie opens in 1964, the young Cassius Clay Jr. is running again, this time through murky inner-city streets to the tune of a Sam Cooke medley. A white stranger asks him, ”Watcha running from, son?“ As the movie has it, the young fighter is running from a poverty-stricken childhood in Louisville, from his place at the back of the bus, from Cooke‘s murder that same year, from four little girls burned alive in an Alabama church. He’s running toward not just a superstar career but a new black identity, forged from the civil rights and Black Muslim movements. He‘s also running with the rest of America into the shadow of Vietnam -- a shadow that will present him with his biggest test as a competitor and a human being.
Lest this all begin to sound like heavy going, Ali is also an engrossing sports movie, albeit remarkably free of the balletic slo-mos and freeze-frames which, after Raging Bull, must come off as cliches. The staging of the fight scenes, as one would expect from a filmmaker as notoriously attentive to detail as Mann, is both visceral and sophisticated, juiced by a thrilling score and by telling cutaways to those beyond the ropes who have high stakes in the outcome: wives, mistresses, longtime trainer Angelo Dundee (played in near silence by the ordinarily showy Ron Silver), reporters. Ali boasts a whole tribe of outstanding secondary performances, of a which Jon Voight’s Cosell, in an outrageous rug and several tons of pasty-face makeup, is easily the funniest. Some of the movie‘s most touching bits come from the affectionately insulting banter between Voight and Will Smith, its kinetic center as Ali. Smith himself, who gained 40 pounds while training for the part, has all of Ali’s natural physical grace, his dancing feet, and an instinctive comic timing lent weight and wit by the movie‘s literate script, which was shaped by five writers, including the meticulous Mann himself. The actor had turned down the role many times -- by his own account, he feared he hadn’t the chops -- before he finally gave in. Whether or not his anxiety informs the vulnerability he confers on the private Ali, the portrayal carries a compelling authenticity, an undertow of chronic insecurity and loneliness of the kind that besets every man who can‘t do without the spotlight.