Heroes and Survivors

Joshua Rothkopf

Let me fix that hair piece, Howard.

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Consider the list of unlucky opponents to face the torrent of words and blows that was Cassius Clay, later, defiantly, Muhammad Ali in his extended primeListon, Frazier, Foreman, terrifying pummelers alland you just might forget The Man of Steel. Ali drops Superman, cape and caboodle, in that most-hoarded 1974 issue of DC Comics, where reality evicts myth from its own halls of justice. This, my friends, was immortality.

How, then, improve upon the glorious facts? Alis rise was, in itself, a superbly creative act, a revision of self as much as the ugly expectations of others, unprepared for the modern black man. All of it is well-storied; the better chroniclers, though, have tapped into some of that fleet-footed invention, the spirit of improvisation. Mailer got it when he jogged with the champ in Zaire and allowed himself to be moved by Alis boasting to skeptics in his own corner, who actually feared for his life: Im gonna dance!

Michael Mann, director of the new Ali now in theaters, has it in mind to dance as well; his biopic spans the decade densest in incidentstretching from the brash 1964 triumph over Liston, the challenger a beautifully unblemished 22, to his legendary comeback at the Rumble in the Jungle, an event hosted and financed by Mobutubut his probe strays anarchically like a bop sax solo wandering into the high registers. Its a liberated free-form that feels especially relaxed for Mann, an ace student of the concentrated car ride, the furrowed brows of insiders.

You can feel it in his first sequence, a deliriously sustained quarter-hour that combines the heat of a Sam Cooke club gig with a young boy stepping to the back of a bus, his gaze transfixed by a newspapers headlinethe Emmitt Till lynching. The band modulates up a half-step, driving the crowd nuts; the boy is now a man working the punching bag, a blur before eyes fixed with dark thoughts. We explode into the chorus and the ring; and the first of Manns many raptures get its punctuation.

More about those eyes, though: Will Smith must be the most courageous actor in America, given that his subject could be knocking down the door any minute now, slowed but no less formidable. Smith has burrowed into the life by every means possible; the body is bulked and conditioned, the tongue a native to those Kentucky cadences as if born and raised. To recall that his landing of the role struck fear into boxing fans is to blush; youll have to take my word that I, for one, never doubted the Fresh Prince. The chops were always there, most audaciously in his bravura theft of Six Degrees of Separation as the con artist. A brilliant scammer is, in fact, what Ali was too, and not disrespectfully so: With each fight, he needed first to trick himself, then the press, and finally his opponent into thinking he was just a rhyme-spouting provocation. (Did Ali invent rap along the way?) That he transcended his own lies with speed and endurance only underlines what was his greatest assetthat crazy mouth, fearless to a fault and all the more dangerous for it.

Its a surprise then, and to Smiths great credit, that he doesnt coast by on wit alone; he keeps it coiled up for long intervals, a risky choice but one that gives his unexpectedly interior Ali a constant glow. Troubled silences are perhaps not the straight facts (confidants remember a wicked self-deprecation) but its a modulation that feels fresh and resourceful. Manns camera is another benefit, framing and even defocusing him into an ever-brooding presence. Boxing movies have a tradition of kinetic photography (and Emmanuel Lubezkis fluid flips and jabs dont disappoint) but there is exquisite craft at work here, capturing both the white light of Africa and the monumental rows of overhead spots in a smoky arena, extending into the distance like a sparkling road to destiny.

We know where that road went; at least half of Alis greatness was cemented behind the microphonehis public embrace of Islam, his conflicted affiliation with Malcolm X and the Nation, his refusal to fight a war he characterized as racist that cost him years and the title. (One has to wonder if Alis actions would be received any differently today.) All of this is presented by Mann and his co-writers in impressionistic spurts, along with snippets of televised riots and the squandering of Alis fortune by irresponsible management; many critics are wishing for something purer.

But Mann is no dummy when it comes to structure, and theres truth to period in the way his picture saves up its coherence for moments of violencein the ring or during its brutally staged, inevitable assassination (the scene is stronger than all of Spike Lees Malcolm X). Alis words competed with so much noise, not to mention his own impotence when his boxing license was suspended. He had to get back in that ring, just so he could articulate a release. Gradually, a far more sophisticated theme begins to emerge from Alithe making, unmaking, and remaking of a man through shrewd publicityas do two pivotal enablers, expertly played: Howard Cosell (a spookily perfect John Voight) and the majestically afroed fight promoter Don King (Mykelti Williamson), hitching a ride on the wave to redemption, financial and otherwise.

Take Ali as a study in savvy media comportment and the character deepens; his low point comes on a train during his fallow years, a sullen refusal to acknowledge a fans enthusiastic Hey, champ! It hurts more than his belt being stripped. The tide turns with Alis reacceptance of his damaged handler, Burundi Brown (Jamie Foxx, feisty, and with unforseen depth), now clean from drugs and ready for more evangelizing. Ali needed his people, Mann is saying, otherwise he was cut off from power. Concluding with the Rumble may seem too easy, but its the proper fulfillment of Manns take: Alis deliverance to a world audience. Orchestrating the chanting crowd from the mat (Ali bumaye!) proves as crucial to his rebirth as the celebrated rope-a-dope that brought Foreman to his exhausted knees.

Of course theres more to the story, and not all of it works as well: The script is accommodating of one too many wives, and an end title emphasizing Alis current marital bliss is a poor choice. To skip over this complicationthe randiness that often rears itself like an occupational hazard to famewould likely have invited scorn; Mann cant win on this one. But when his daring conception pays off, its impossible not to be thrilled by the flow: Ali rampaging out of a hearing, raging at the newshounds and white America, You my oppressor! A smash cut suddenly brings us inside the bloody arena, to the poor soul who insisted on calling Ali by the slave name Clay, now taking a beating: Whats my name, motherfucker?Alis courage in refusing induction into the Army cannot be overstated, even if his articulation of that stance came later than the movie would have it. The irony is still choking: a natural warrior, barred from his trade and the option of fighting abroad (his passport was revoked), who made himself over into a soldier of principled resistance. As a celebrity, his position was explosivea flashpoint in the public perception of the war. Simply put, he needed a reason for Vietnam and there was none. No such nerve from the makers of Black Hawk Down, an appallingly dispassionate account of what should, by any measure, be an indictment of military arrogance.

The estimable Stuart Klawans of The Nation compliments his readers with a curt, one-sentence dismissal of this pointless machine-movie, but for the sake of the liberal record, lets lower the boom. The book, by Mark Bowden, was a smash and honorably so: Americas gory misadventures in Somalia were, to some brass, an embarrassment that was best forgotten. Here, however, was an assiduous bit of war reportingabout a crack Special Forces raid on Mogadishus Bakara market that was supposed to last a surgical half-hour but instead took two days and hundreds of lives, 18 of them oursouting the disastrous campaign once and for all. Bowden was relentless with the facts, but his multiple- perspective recounting smuggled in more: the haughtiness and shock at seeing our high-tech air superiority toppled to the ground by shoeless indigents.

Ridley Scott, a technical master, thinks hes got this licked by sticking to the blow-by-blowhell make his own Saving Private Ryan. And he has: Solemn attention is paid to the terrible chronologyto dusty hazes, tortured metal and flesh. (You wont remember a single performance.) But without those monologues of private fears coming to fruition, its a tour of duty of utter inconsequence. Does it matter that this is probably the shiniest contraption of Scotts career? I dont understand these virtual-reality war movies, eschewing any kind of commentary for a you-are-there gruesomeness. Who are they made for? Paralyzed veterans? Audiences with staminasand stomachsof iron?

When that first bullet goes past your head, politics go right out the window, says one character. Maybe so for a soldier, but art requires a little more. (I wont even touch the matter of seeing scary blacks, rebels of an unvoiced cause, turned into the bursting targets of a video game.) One can only salute with sympathy the uniformed survivors of a governments folly, who did the best they could under orders. But a closing credit makes a shameless nod to current deployments in Afghanistan, the first mention of September 11 in a feature, and even this scant iota of instant-heroism is too much. Help us, Ali: We need you now more than ever, and your fiercely critical intelligence that placed dignity over acquiescence.

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Joshua Rothkopf has been covering cinema for In These Times since 1999. His work has appeared in The Village Voice, The Chicago Reader, Isthmus and City Pages, among other publications.
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