Down Goes Ali

Victim: Ali

Postmortem:Biopic of global icon that succeeded mostly in showing how difficult it is to make a movie about a famous person, especially one who lived during the TV age. After opening with a record $10 million take Christmas Day, Ali floundered, earning only another $47 million over the next month, putting it well behind fellow holiday opener Jimmy Neutron. . . 7!. . . 8!. . . 9!. . .
Case notes: Ali had an interesting director (Michael Mann) and a big star (Will Smith) and, to its credit, did not attempt to tell the entire story of the great man's life—the film covers the 10 years between Ali winning the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston to his regaining it from George Foreman in 1974. The problem with Ali is Ali. He is so famous that the events we watch, even the private moments between famous events, turn out to be only moments we compare with our own voluminous knowledge of the man. Instead of watching the film, we are comparing the director, writer and star's interpretations of Ali's life with our own. We simply know too much. Any film, mystery or not, depends in part on a certain amount of ignorance from its audience. It's why you could once make very good biopics; why, in its first 10 years of existence, the Academy Award for Best Actor went to actors playing famous men ranging from Benjamin Disraeli (George Arliss) to Father Flanagan (Spencer Tracy). It's not that people don't know how to make movies about famous people anymore; it's that the nature of fame has changed—with, it turns out, Ali being the very epitome of that shift. This isn't even the first Ali biopic. The first one was called The Greatest and starred . . . Muhammad Ali. It was just a few years ago that a film about the Foreman fight—When We Were Kings—won the Oscar for Best Documentary. We have seen Ali in countless reports, documentaries, snippets, sound bites and Dean Martin roasts. His 60th birthday was a network special. What is significant about Ali is that it signals how difficult it will be for future filmmakers to tell the stories about people presently famous. It's always been true that it's easier to make a good film about someone who achieved some fame than someone who is famous. It's why there is a great movie about Malcolm X and why one about Martin Luther King Jr. is unlikely. Why The Buddy Holly Story was a very good film and nothing about Elvis Presley rises above cartoonish. It's why you can make a masterpiece about a lug named Jake LaMotta (Raging Bull) and not one about The Greatest. And in this E!-network, People Magazine, "Naked Pics of Britney Spears" world we live in, it figures only to get tougher. My advice: Almost Famous wasn't a very good movie, but it makes for a better subject.
 
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