I just finished watching this film, which debuted tonight on HBO earlier tonight. Muhammad Ali is and has been a personal hero and role model of mine for over a decade now. One of the things I admire the most about him is principles, and the way he stood up for his beliefs, regardless of the potential consequences. In particular, what he went through in opposing the draft, that took a lot of courage. So I was interested in seeing this film.
Despite the title, the film isn’t really about Ali specifically. He appears in the film periodically, in the form of archival news footage and interviews which are spliced in throughout the film. But this film is mainly about the inner workings of the Supreme Court at the time, as they first must decide whether or not to even hear Ali’s appeal of his conviction, and then how they will rule on the case.
The key figures in this film are Chief Justice Warren Burger, played by Frank Langella, a conservative law & order man, who is close friends with President Nixon. He is clear from the beginning that he has no interest in hearing Ali’s case, and isn’t happy when the rest of the Court votes to do so. But he is not portrayed as a completely unreasonable man. We see the court debating a case where a woman claims she was discriminated against by not getting hired for a job just because she was a woman with children. Initially, Justice Burger argues that the employer had the right not to hire her, but then his clerks are surprised when he votes in her favor. We learn that his rational for this was rest of the justices had voted in her favor and so Burger changed his vote because he thought it was important for the integrity of the court to present a consensus whenever possible. This would turn out to be a prime motivator in his eventual decision with Ali’s case.
The next main character is Justice John Harlan (Christopher Plummer). He and Justice Burger are longtime friends, Burger believes he can always count on him. Harlan is in his 70’s, and he’s losing his eyesight, and is feeling unwell in other ways. He sometimes has trouble standing up, and his secretary (Dana Ivey) pushes him to see his doctor, which he eventually does and finds out he has a tumor. There’s also subplot where we see that his wife, Ethel (Kathleen Chalfant) is becoming mentally unwell, forgetting things, and wandering off. All of this leads to Harlan eventually deciding to retire from the Court at the end of the session. And he initially agrees with Burger about the Ali case.
The third, and probably main role in the film, is Benjamin Walker as Kevin Connolly. He’s a newly hired law clerk for Justice Harlan, and becomes close with the Justice, despite being politically liberal. From the beginning, Kevin is opposed to Ali’s conviction, and tries to convince Justice Harlan to vote against it. After the Court initially votes 5-3 to uphold Ali’s conviction (Justice Thurgood Marshall recused himself from the case), Justice Burger assigns Justice Harlan to write the majority opinion, and Harlan appoints Kevin the task or writing it for him. It’s through Kevin’s research into the case, while writing the opinion, that he eventually comes up with the legal justification to overturn Ali’s conviction, and convinces Justice Harlan to change his vote, which leads to the Justice convincing the other Justices, including a somewhat reluctant Chief Justice Burger, to do the same, leading to a unanimous decision to set Ali free. The film ends on a high note, with Kevin and his wife (Lisa Joyce) visiting Justice Harlan in the hospital, where he’s recovering from surgery, with their newborn daughter, juxtaposed with footage of Muhammad Ali winning the Heavyweight Title from George Foreman in Zaire.
There are other notablye actors in this film, in small but memorably roles. Danny Glover plays Thurgood Marshall, Ed Begley Jr. plays newly appointed Justice Harry Blackmun. Both do great jobs, but are seen far too rarely, in my opinion. Peter Gerety plays liberal Justice William Brennan, who is one of the biggest advocates for hearing Ali’s case and overturning it, right from the beginning. And Pablo Schreiber plays Covert Becker, Justice Harlan’s top law clerk, who clashes with Kevin immediately, and has a smug attitude. Both are also wonderful in their roles.
Written by Shawn Slovo and directed by Stephen Frears, this is an excellent film, which I highly recommend.
This film is currently airing on HBO, check your local listings.