Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
The title of Stephen Frears’ HBO film, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, is a little misleading. It follows the 1971 Supreme Court decision that upheld Muhammad Ali’s right to claim conscientious objector status; Frears and screenwriter Shawn Slovo were surely taken with the modest irony of attaching a label—one that suggests a cheesy ESPN filler reel—to a film about old guys sitting around their offices, talking about legal precedents. The case can be made that the legal fight to keep Ali out of prison and allow him to resume his career was indeed his “greatest fight,” but the title makes it sound as if Ali himself is an active participant in the story. And he’s not.
While the justices and their clerks argue over the merits of the case, Ali is off somewhere else, being magnetic on talk shows and at speaking engagements and press conferences. Frears interpolates clips of Ali the talker in his prime throughout the film, and while they help to remind the viewer what’s at stake, they obliterate the movie surrounding them. It would be bad enough if the story of a brave, charismatic black man standing up for his principles was turned into the story of the eight old white guys who were his salvation. Instead, this is the story of how a young white man helped an old white man to come around and do the right thing, just in the nick of time.
The white men in question are Christopher Plummer (playing Justice John Marshall Harlan) and Benjamin Walker (as Harlan’s idealistic, fresh-faced new clerk, Kevin Kennedy). In his British TV film The Deal, Frears trusted the viewer to care about ideas and to be able to follow and get caught up in the back-and-forth of political gamesmanship. Here, he and Slovo reduce things to simple, sloppy human interest: The viewer is expected not to be interested in the workings of Plummer’s mind, but to care about him because his body is failing him and because he and his wife, who’s losing her marbles, have been married since the Cenozoic Era.
He and his new clerk meet-cute after Walker, the little scamp, shows up for his job interview half an hour late, with grease on his hands, because his car died on him. After the court agrees to hear Ali’s case, and a first vote goes against the champ, Harlan agrees to write the opinion, and tells Walker to get cracking on it. Walker immediately sets about trying to persuade Plummer—who, unbeknownst to the clerk, may be a little grumpy because he’s just been diagnosed with spinal cancer and doesn’t have long to live—to change his mind, and then go to work changing the minds of the rest of the justices. The way this is presented, the important issue isn’t whether justice will prevail; it’s about whether Walker’s surrogate daddy will disappoint him.
As has often been the case with torn-from-yesterday’s-headlines TV movies, the film is most worth sitting through for some of the performances. Having had his fling at playing Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, Frank Langella now sinks his teeth into the role of Nixon’s first Supreme Court appointee, Warren Burger, widely held to have been the dumbest Chief Justice in U. S. history. Langella plays him as a bigoted lout, but a lout cloaked in magisterial self-regard, and a thin-skinned man who hates to be misunderstood. Naturally, he feels cruelly misunderstood at every turn. Speaking dismissively of a sex-discrimination suit filed by a woman with small children, he muses aloud about how silly it is that a woman with kids to feed should expect anyone to hire her at all, before backpedaling in his head when he notices his fellow justices trying not to look at him funny.
Fritz Weaver has a couple of funny moments as Hugo Black, who, at 83, has been a liberal Southerner too damn long to care whether his unfiltered opinions piss anyone off. And Danny Glover is magnificent, and hilarious, as a growling, hepcat Thurgood Marshall, who’s tickled when someone mistakes him for an elevator operator, but resents having to interrupt his soap opera for court business. But just when it looks as if Glover might be able to carry this whole show, he announces that, because he was solicitor general when Ali was first convicted of draft evasion, he’s recusing himself, and lumbers off. It’s a shame the movie doesn’t lumber off after him.
Directed by: Stephen Frears
Written by: Shawn Slovo
Starring: Christopher Plummer, Frank Langella, Benjamin Walker
Debuting: Saturday at 8:00 p.m. EST
Format: TV movie