Ali
Reviewed in January 2001; update from August 2009 here

Director: Michael Mann. Cast: Will Smith, Jamie Foxx, Jon Voight, Mario Van Peebles, Nona M. Gaye, Ron Silver, Jeffrey Wright, Mykelti Williamson, Jada Pinkett Smith, Albert Hall, Giancarlo Esposito, Michael Michele, LeVar Burton, Joe Morton, James Toney, Michael Bentt, Charles Shufford, Ted Levine. Screenplay: Stephen J. Rivèle & Christopher Wilkinson and Eric Roth & Michael Mann (from a story by Gregory Allen Howard).

The terse directness of Ali's title is an utterly misleading sell for a uniquely discursive and anarchic film biography. For a while during Ali, I was frustrated by knowing so little about many of the characters who remained omnipresent on the screen—essentially, that includes everyone except the boxer himself. Emmanuel Lubezki's grainy cinematography felt like a step down from Dante Spinotti's impeccable visual precision in the last few Mann pictures, and Will Smith, without violating any tenets of the character, seemed both too cautious and too hard-working in his habitation of the part.

I would love to see Ali again to see if a second visual experience recalls the first, but all I can report is that the restlessness of the narrative gradually revealed itself as a stand-in for the epochal social foment of the 1960s that Ali's plot is explicitly reacting to without showing much of it very directly. Leaders, friends, and villains parading swiftly in and out of the spotlight, alliances being constantly drawn and redrawn: these idiosyncrasies in the film's dramatic structure are actually an eloquent mirror of the historical life moment in which Ali transpires. Once that context is in place, most of the other elements—the elliptical transitions between scenes, the camera that barely keeps pace with the moving actors and crowds, the scattered peppering of iconic figures among the more plebeian groupies, wives, and fans—all fall into place. So does Smith's performance, which grows in confidence just as Ali begins to learn what he represents to people in America and, more affectingly, in Africa. The film and the performance are revelations over time, just as the man was, and is. B+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actor: Will Smith
Best Supporting Actor: Jon Voight

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actor (Drama): Will Smith
Best Supporting Actor: Jon Voight
Best Original Score: Lisa Gerrard & Pieter Bourke

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