Photo by Howard BinghamIn 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 also 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.
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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 also 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 that, after Raging Bull, must come off as clichs. 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 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. He could be gullible, too. Though the film acknowledges that Elijah Muhammed's Nation of Islam gave Ali his sense of pride as a boxer and a black man, it insists that had Ali remained loyal to his mentor, Malcolm X (played by Mario Van Peebles with a taut discipline he has never shown before), he would have been less open to being ripped off by the movement's leader, who used him primarily as a moneymaker and whose deviousness—along with that of Elijah's son Herbert—was clearly understood not by Ali, but by his second wife, Belinda (Nona Gaye), herself a devout Muslim. Ali celebrates black history without laundering it. Most of all, the film gives Ali his due by refusing to idealize him or to gloss over his failings—his lousy judgment in abandoning Malcolm X, his weakness for beautiful women despite his insistence that his wives observe full Islamic modesty, his hubris and endless hectoring of the media and of other black fighters. Finally, Ali is an enormously affectionate portrait of a generous man who was fiercely loyal to those who worked for him and took no vengeance on those who wronged him. Ali gave up years of his prime to keep his word and his pride, and in so doing set a tone for a generation of dissent—an act of courage that, Mann maintains, was in no way diminished by the champ's lack of political savvy. "Ain't no Viet Cong ever called me a nigger": clueless or not—and really, how many anti-war demonstrators in the '60s could point to Saigon on a map?—Ali had a gift for summing up a cultural moment. In a telling gesture during the show-stopping climactic fight scene, Ali, his face puffy and swollen from Foreman's punishing hooks, winks at a young Zairean woman walking around the ring—and rises from the mat to whup his opponent's ass, as promised. Climaxing with his wildly improbable victory, the movie freezes Ali in time, before the fall, before the fights he should never have fought, before Parkinson's disease took away his control over his public image. It's a good place to stop: by all accounts, George Foreman, after he got over his defeat, went on to become the sweetest man alive. Ali, following his victory, had the misfortune to be canonized. In pursuit of a saint, we lost the human being.