New on HBO: 'Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight'

There’s little doubt that the most famous draft evader during the Vietnam War was the Heavyweight Champion of the World, Muhammad Ali. When Ali received his draft notice in 1966, he claimed conscientious objector status on religious grounds. When that claim was denied, Ali refused induction in 1967. For that act boxing stripped him of his title. Then he was found guilty of draft evasion, fined $10, 000, and sentenced to five years in jail.

Ali and his legal team appealed. Ali never served time in jail, although he was not permitted in the ring for the four years it took for his case to go to the U.S. Supreme Court. That’s the subject of the excellent new HBO docudrama, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight.

The great British director Stephen Frears does a nifty job mixing great contemporary footage of Ali with first-rate film-making featuring Christopher Plummer as Supreme Court Justice John Harlan and Frank Langellas as Chief Justice Warren Burger. Everything is top-of-the-line here: the acting, the script, the costumes, and the sets. You really get the feeling you’re watching what happened behind the scenes as the justices decided that landmark First Amendment case.

The Vietnam War is a central part of the entire drama, which is based on the book by  by Howard L. Bingham and Max Wallace. The main theme is the legality of Ali’s conscientious objector status, but there also are scenes of antiwar demonstrations, including those involving Vietnam veterans.

Christopher Plummer as Chief Justice Warren Burger and Frank Langella as Supreme Court Justice John Harlan in the film

 




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