This is a fantastic doc, much better than the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings and obviously an important source for Ali, which covers exactly the same time period. Klein’s camera is always moving, clinging closely to his subjects and catching the edgy rhythms and energies of each scene. The film consists basically of four short films: The first three are in gritty black and white, following Ali from his first title win against Sonny Liston in Miami 1964, then the aborted fight in Boston and finally a big rematch in Maine 1965. We then jump ahead to 1974 and the images gain a lurid colour as we’re in Zaire for Ali’s comeback, the Rumble in the Jungle against George Foreman.
Klein avoids all of the obvious footage in lieu of behind-the-scenes intimacy. The matches themselves are shown in freeze frame; everything else is loud and brash, catching the chaos of the environment. It also picks out the issues beneath the surface, most notably through Ali’s constant comments on religion, politics, race and history. What emerges is very strong stuff–both provocative and quietly thoughtful. It shows Ali as the consummate self-promoter who actually has the courage of his convictions. He’s outspoken, unconventionally smart and subtly brave. And the film takes a completely open-handed approach, never telling us what to think, just presenting the scenes and letting us make up our own mind. It never imagines what happens away from the cameras; there’s nothing here about Ali’s private life. And while this rather jumpy, spotty approach may not give us the full picture, it still helps us understand the legend in a way no other film can.