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The Unfilmable Muhammad Ali

Why Michael Mann’s 2001 film couldn’t quite match its subject

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Watching the opening sequence of Michael Mann’s Ali is like seeing Mount Rushmore come to life. Outsize, mythological figures are suddenly walking and talking. There’s Ali — then known as Cassius Clay — training for his first fight against Sonny Liston, in Miami, with trainers Angelo Dundee and Bundini Brown. There he is again, listening to Malcolm X give a speech. There’s Sam Cooke, performing an ecstatic live version of “Bring It on Home to Me,” like the one that would appear on one of the greatest live albums ever recorded. Segregation and civil rights, the rise of mass media and popular music, professional sports as sociocultural battlefield. The scene is just 10 minutes long, but it’s practically as big as the 20th century.

In the film, Cooke joins Ali in the ring after the Liston fight, and Ali says, “That’s the greatest rock-and-roll singer, and I’m the greatest boxer in the world!” It’s almost too much. It is too much — that’s the point. All these huge characters and bold-print story lines and themes, all converging on one fighter, in one ring. How could that be?

That was Ali. He was where the rivers met.

Associated Press
Associated Press

In the next scene, set during the night of the fight, Ali hangs out with Cooke, Malcolm X, and Cleveland Browns running back Jim Brown in a Miami hotel room. They watch Boris Karloff’s The Mummy and shoot the breeze. If you didn’t know any better, it might sound like a Forrest Gump short-cut, with all the major chess pieces of a decade sitting in one square, all too conveniently.

The hotel meeting, like Cooke’s cameo in the ring, did happen. That’s the problem with making a Muhammad Ali movie. Some people’s lives are just too big for a screen.

If you were going to bet your life on two people to compose an attractive frame of moving picture, you could do a lot worse than Mann and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Ali is sumptuous — alternating between Life magazine photos and nocturnal vérité shots with digital cameras. But despite its pleasures, the movie is never quite able to transcend its namesake; it is almost punch-drunk by its source material.

You never forget that you are watching Will Smith play Ali, or Mario Van Peebles play Malcolm X. After Heat and The Insider, Ali felt like a letdown for Mann, earning only $58 million in domestic box office and garnering just two Oscar nominations, for Smith and Jon Voight, who played Howard Cosell. In the days since the champ’s passing, however, the movie has fulfilled the role it was always destined for: a fitting, almost humble tribute to a man, a time, and a place.

Columbia Pictures
Columbia Pictures

Mann’s films are largely concerned with an individual’s dogged pursuit of greatness — in criminal investigation, journalism, robbery — at the expense of everything else. In that sense, the filmmaker and subject made for a perfect union. Perhaps too perfect. How do you make a movie about the greatness of someone who continually talks about his own greatness? You try to find the quiet moments outside of the ring. After the first 10 minutes, the film backs off from the enormousness of its subject, becoming almost dreamlike once Ali arrives in Africa in 1974 for the Rumble in the Jungle.

After making Ali, Mann would tell The Guardian that he was done with historical movies because he found the limitations — forcing his story to match up with history — “imprisoning.” He had been planning a Howard Hughes picture, but was finding it frustrating to conceive. “It’s like, ‘In 1947, Howard Hughes goes in front of a congressional hearing.’ And it can’t be 1946. It can’t be 1937. And I’d like to say, ‘Y’know what? He crashes his plane on the way to the hearing.’ But you can’t do that.”

The flip side of this problem is a story like Ali’s. How do you tell a story about a life like his? He was an archetype. The day after the Liston fight, Ali made his relationship with the Nation of Islam public. Cooke was shot to death in December. Malcolm X was assassinated in February 1965. History unraveled before Ali. The mountain didn’t have to come to Muhammad. Muhammad was the mountain.

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