There should be no shame at failing at the impossible. Michæl Mann is an exceptional filmmaker and Ali has moments of brilliance, but when I take a step back and think about what could have been there and what should have been there, one has to admit that the movie falls short of capturing the mythic power of the Ali legend. Here’s the problem in four words – where is the joy? Could someone please give Michæl Mann a call and let him know how much fun this guy was? No one in the history of the world had more fun at being exactly who they were than Muhammad Ali and yet after watching Will Smith contend with capturing probably the best known and most loved person on the planet, you can’t help but think that he must have been ecstatic to get back to being Will Smith again. When Muhammad Ali put on a show he made sure to let you know that you were in for some fun and this film is just no fun.
I shook Muhammad Ali’s hand once in the early ’90s and I swear the guy glows. He can’t talk and his hands shake, but even in his diminished state the man genuinely beams love, compassion and joy. Ali’s entire life has been captured on film and video and in the end whether you’re talking about Elvis, Marilyn Monroe or Muhammad Ali, you just can’t compete with the real thing. Smith is fine but he’s trying to emulate perhaps the most charismatic man of the 20th Century. He deserves plenty of praise for his work here but in the end he still pales next to the reality of what has been one of the most chronicled and storied lives of all time.
When Mann picks up the action with Cassius Clay’s stunning victory over Sonny Liston, he has already chosen to ignore about a miniseries worth of material. We never see this guy learn to fight. We miss the gold medal in the Olympics. We miss almost entirely Clay’s conversion to Islam by Malcolm X. Most of all we miss the smack. This guy spent close to three years loudly telling the world that he was going to be champion of the world and we see none of it. Perhaps Mann felt that these years have already been well chronicled, but without the rush of the early Clay the viewer simply can’t understand what Ali the revolutionary gave up. Never in the history of the world has there been a person more in love with the glory of the spotlight and Mann’s Ali reveals almost none of it. When Clay beats Liston, the viewer should know how big of an upset it was. Clay was a revolutionary with his mouth and his pride even before he revealed his conversion to Islam to the world. When Smith echoes the man by deriding his doubters with the mythic “I shook up the world” the audience is barely given the opportunity to truly understand exactly what that meant. One barely gets to understand what a lightning rod the Ali of the ’60s truly was. Ali’s supporters bordered on Christ worship and as for his detractors people didn’t just hate this guy, they wanted him dead.
Ali’s three-year exile is well dealt with by Mann. The film’s best moments take place when Ali eloquently is allowed to explain just why he refuses to go halfway across the world to kill people he doesn’t have a problem with to prop up a government that openly discriminates and defiles the members of his race in America. My guess is that Mann wanted his Ali to be seen as a reflective thinker, but that just wasn’t so and too seldom is the real Ali allowed to surge forward and show why he was called the Louisville Lip. Ali’s fury that anyone else be called champion of the world while he was yet to be defeated was volcanic and it is barely touched on here. Ali gave up everything he ever wanted for a principal and the viewer is barely let in on just how big of a deal that was both to him and to the country.
HBO made a documentary about the importance of the first Ali-Frazier fight last year called One Nation …Divisible that has it all over this movie. Mann’s film doesn’t begin to capture the excitement, furor and political importance of that fight. We barely know that we are seeing perhaps the most dramatic fight in the history of boxing. Joe Frazier almost died that night and people were weeping uncontrollably at the notion that Ali could be beaten. In Mann’s film it comes across as little more than just another fight.
Mann’s film climaxes with another huge Ali upset, his wily defeat of George Forman in Zaire. Again Mann’s film must compete with an excellent documentary, Leon Gast’s 1996 When We Were Kings. From watching Mann’s Ali, you would guess that the Foreman fight came about two weeks after the Frazier fight. It just wasn’t so. The reason that it was so inspiring that Ali got his title back is because he took so much punishment and abuse for another three long years just to get the chance to reclaim his title again.
The boxing scenes in this film are well done, but again the film shortchanges Ali the fighter. Mann does a reasonably good job of bringing the speed and fury of the young Ali to life especially in the dramatic moments where Ali loses his vision in the first Liston fight and in Ali’s brutal beating of Ernie Terrell after the fighter refused to call him by his Muslim name. The Ali that returned to fight Frazier and Foreman was a completely different fighter who relied mostly on guts and savvy, but Mann’s film never really allows the audience to feel the years. Smith basically looks no different in the Foreman fight than he did for the Liston fight ten years earlier. Those ten years were an eternity to Ali and without feeling the true weight of his time without the belt you can’t really experience the true splendor of his victory.
The most important thing that this film is missing is Ali’s heart. There is a reason why he was able to overcome the public’s early hatred of him to become perhaps the most loved figure of the twentieth century, but Mann’s Ali is too concerned with cramming all of the benchmarks of his career into three hours to take the time to understand the true joy and compassion of the man. Smith is fine in this movie, but after three hours one is hard pressed to see the true childlike glory that is well apparent in any single news clip from the past thirty years. What this movie is truly missing is a huge smile.
Mann’s Ali ends in 1974 with the fighter recapturing his title from Foreman. It’s an understandably choice, but I think in the end the wrong one. I am of the strong belief that Ali’s disablement from Parkinson’s syndrome needs to be dealt with to truly understand the man’s life. I’m sure that Mann didn’t want to deal with the horror of seeing the modern Ali hobbled and silent. I don’t want to deal with it either. I want to see this guy leading the cheers in Zaire forever too, but that isn’t the way it turned out is it?