If I hadn’t read an interview with Christopher Plummer in yesterday’s Daily Beast, I might not have known this HBO original movie was on last night, but I’m glad I did because the movie was utterly fascinating.
Based on a book of the same name and directed by Stephen Frears (“The Queen” with Helen Mirren and many other great films), it takes place in 1967 when Ali was convicted of draft dodging. He’d changed his named from Cassius Clay after joining the Nation of Islam and refused to be inducted into the military because he was opposed to the Vietnam War on religious grounds. I remember it well. I was a big boxing fan in those days and watched all the Ali-Frazer/Ali-Foreman fights and Ali was just about the biggest sports story on the planet in those days.
Stripped of his world heavyweight championship title, he spent four years fighting his conviction, embarking on a college tour to make money. At the time he found a sympathetic audience, since campuses across America were in a state of protest against the war. In 1971, his case finally reached the Supreme Court and it’s in the Court that this movie resides.
What a cast. Frank Langella plays Nixon’s pal Chief Justice Warren Burger. Plummer plays Justice John Harlan. Danny Glover plays Justice Thurgood Marshall, the only black man on the bench. Barry Levinson, Fritz Weaver, Ed Begley Jr. play other justices. The real co-star to Plummer is Benjamin Walker, who plays Plummer’s clerk, Kevin Connolly, a liberal who didn’t agree with his boss’s positions, particularly his decision to join the Chief Justice’s opinion that Ali’s case should be upheld, not overturned.
The drama of the legal battle involving these giants of acting, expertly interwoven with archival footage of Ali, boxing, student protests, Nixon, etc. make this a must-see movie. I’m sure HBO will repeat it throughout the month. Plummer, in particular, as a conservative justice who values fairness – and who’s dying of cancer and has a wife with dementia – is superb.