stranger than fiction


Michael Mann's Ali, Roger Donaldson's Thirteen Days
Leon Gast's When We Were Kings and Oliver Stone's Nixon


I finally got the chance to see Ali,  play audio►  stop
Michael Mann's big-budget biopic, which featured an Oscar®-nominated performance by Will Smith. I'm not sure why I didn't like it, but I didn't. Maybe it's because I've grown up with Ali, that I know his face and know his voice and know his moves. Maybe it's because Ali was the greatest showman of his generation, and Smith's performance is too grounded, too literal, too serious for a man who was on camera almost twenty-four hours a day. I can only wonder, if I hadn't known Ali, if I hadn't been that familiar with his legend, if I'd have liked Ali the film any better.

The central problem is Smith's performance, for which he was nominated for Outstanding Lead Actor (or "Best Actor" as the press tends to call it). Maybe it's just me, but I thought Smith's portrayal was simply bad. Not only not worthy of an Oscar nod, but really nail-bitingly poor, verging on unwatchable. I can see where Smith strived for Ali's famous southern cadence, but he misses the mark by nearly a country mile. Ali's voice, like Cosell and John Wayne, is one of the most recognizable and, to my thinking, easily parodied drawls in popular culture. While I'm sure Smith studied stacks of tapes of the genuine article doing his side-splitting sideshow—  the dog and pony act that single-handedly revolutionized the sport of boxing and drummed up the gate from a fistful of dollars to several Brinks trucks—  Smith would have done better, I think, to have sat down with Billy Crystal, who does an Ali (and Cosell) so dead-on, he could likely have looped both Smith and Jon Voight's performances in this film.

Which is not entirely fair, I realize.
Which is not entirely fair, I realize. Voight, also nominated for Outstanding Prosthetic Appliance In A Drama, turns in a better Cosell than Smith's Ali, but, simply knowing that's Jon Voight under there somewhere took me right out of the story and right out of Voight's otherwise fine performance. The latex became the sideshow, and suddenly I understood Oliver Stone's decision to forego rubbering up Anthony Hopkins's Nixon— a performance jolting in that Hopkins looks nothing at all like Nixon, but, by the second reel you just don't care, so riveting was Hopkins' performance. Paul Sorvino's otherwise brilliant Kissinger, however, was a show-stopper in as much as the rubber nose just made me guffaw every time Kissinger appeared in the oval office. Such distractions ruin the narrative flow, and the rubbery Cosell tended to do that for Ali. Jamie Foxx's Bundini Brown was actually a fine performance, but, again, just knowing that's Foxx under the bad hair and big glasses just kind of took me out of the moment. In fact, my only real joy of this film was John Tuturro, so lost inside Ali cornerman Angelo Dundee (below, extreme right)'s skin that I didn't realize it was him until very late in the game.



We've all read countless pull quotes about Will Smith's miraculous transformation into Ali, and to some extent the praise is earned and credible. Though still too skinny to be Ali, Smith did a credible job of at least appearing to be a light heavyweight (Ali was frequently a bit too lean to be thought of as a true heavyweight), and Smith nailed many of the champ's trademark moves in the ring. In fact, the scenes in the ring were exemplary, the best part of the flick, with Mann getting his camera in the confined space in new and innovative ways, really bringing the ring experience home and dispelling the more cartoonish Rocky feel of fight movies. If there's any place that Ali excels, it is between the ringing of the bell.

But Mario Van Peoples' wretched Malcolm X nearly destroys the first act. I tend to avoid anything, anything at all, with Mario Van Peoples in the credits, as I accept the words "Mario Van Peoples" as a warning label. Peoples is a singularly numb actor and director who comes across as so incredibly full of himself that I can't get any story out of his work. Watching Peoples here was, for me, the fingernails dragged across a chalkboard. And, maybe that was the point: to distract us from Smith's leaden and lifeless Ali, a take so stunningly dry and humorless that I'm left puzzled and disappointed by my two heroes, Mann and Smith.

I will, typically, see anything with Michael Mann's name on it. From the brilliant but ignored TV show Crime Story, to the empty calorie guilty pleasure Miami Vice, to the Silence of The Lambs prequel Manhunter, Mann has wowed me with style over substance. But such convincing style, such overwhelming style, that I don't even care that, at the end of the day, the plot was only a few lines on the page. Mann's stock and trade is guilty pleasure, Don Johnson wandering around South Street Seaport in Armani off-white and no socks while Glenn Frey croons You Belong To The City in the most blatant and shameless plug for a new record ever done in the history of television. It was horribly contrived and insultingly obvious, but I didn't care. The magic of Mann is he makes me not even care that he's manipulating me or taking advantage of me because the picture is so pretty and the mood is so perfect. It is a testament to the power of word of mouth that I had no interest in seeing Ali theatrically. After Mann's brilliant evisceration of Mike Wallace and 60 Minutes in the Al Pacino-Russell Crowe IntelliFlick The Insider, I was more than ready to line up, shekels in hand, for Ali. But people I trust got to me beforehand, dissipating my enthusiasm for this film, which I've only seen yesterday on DVD.


The failure, for me, with Ali, was likely in Mann's literalism. Here, Mann reaches for Oliver Stone's seriousness and attempts at accuracy, which is to miss the point of the great Ali myth: Ali was all about creating a fantasy, a world much larger than life of which he was the absolute ruler. The crime, here, is in making a dull film about so Wyle E. a coyote as Muhammad Ali. One viewing of Leon Gast's vastly superior When We Were Kings, a film I do not recommend anyone to see if they intend to see Ali, shows us where Mann missed his mark: in his stretch for realism, he lost sight of the fact that realism was the last thing Ali wanted us to see. Realism is two guys get inside a roped-off platform and hit each other for a half hour. Or, more accurately, they hold and duck and evade each other. The fact is, most boxing matches are just dull, few rising to the fervor of your average Rocky flick. In order to raise the gate— the money earned by the fight— Ali rightfully figured these bouts needed to become cultural events. Almost single-handedly, Ali did just that, propelling boxing to the status of a rogue comet or seismological event: everyone was talking about these major bouts. When Ali climbed into the ring, the world stopped spinning on its axis, and the winner was the only news story of the night, and the front page of every paper in the world the following day. It is difficult to describe what boxing was in Ali's heyday, largely if not exclusively because of him. I don't even know who the current heavyweight champ is, and I can't remember the last time I even cared, let alone when the last time the winner of a heavyweight title landed on page one of the New York Times.

All through the film, I kept hearing Mann tell Smith, "Tone it down. Flatter, dryer." Will's southern drawl is incredibly bad, and his Ali is lifeless. Smith looks sleepy through most of the film, seeming alert (and winning the day) only in short bursts of exuberance (the false bravado of Ali interrupting George Foreman's workout with conga drums and the proclamation, "The king is here!"—  that was one of very few times when Smith convinced me he was Ali, one of the very few times I could see the brilliant Smith in his Ali portrait). At the end of his sentences, Smith turns nearly every note downward, to the point where it starts taking me out of the story because now I'm looking for it, the downward turn on the last note of every sentence. Then I put in Kings and look for Ali himself doing that, sounding like that. Maybe it was because the cameras were rolling, but I never once saw Ali talk the way Smith talks in Ali. I'm wondering where that notion, of that leadenness, came from. Maybe I missed a meeting, maybe it's just me. I've never, ever, heard Ali sound like he does in Ali. I've never heard the downturned note, and I've never heard the energy sapped out of this guy, this energized figure who was always on, twenty-four hours a day.

Ali omits two milestone's of Muhammad Ali's career, Ken Norton's breaking Ali's jaw in the second round of their 1973 fight (Ali's second loss as a professional, after his defeat to Joe Frazier in '71), and Ali-Frazier II, the ex-champ's revenge bout with Frazier, which Ali won in a 15-round decision in 1974. Ali-Frazier II was not a championship bout, as Frazier had lost his title to newcomer George Foreman, a fighter Ali now desperately wanted in the ring, but who was making Ali wait his turn as Foreman went about the business of destroying one fighter after another— notably dropping Ken Norton, who had beaten Ali, in two rounds. Ali-Foreman seemed inevitable, and quite necessary to Ali's comeback hopes, as this new guy had summarily crushed the only two men who had ever beaten Ali professionally. Had the film taken even two minutes of montage or, gee, stock footage and voiceover to set this up properly, the final act of Ali would have been much more powerful and made much more sense. As the Zaire bout with Foreman is the concluding chapter of the film, it was critical that the audience understand why this wasn't just another fight: why The Rumble In The Jungle was the most important fight of Muhammad Ali's life.




Mann glossed over the significance and importance of George Foreman to Ali's career. The 1974 Ali-Foreman battle, "The Rumble In The Jungle," was thought by most as the last battle of Ali's career. Having been floored by Joe Frazier in '71and had his jaw broken by Ken Norton the year before, the consensus was that Ali's best days were behind him. Our born-again cuddly fryer pitchman Foreman, now re-cast as some kind of American folk hero, was a very scary individual in those days. An Olympic gold medallist, Foreman was a fairly humorless, straightforward giant of a man who destroyed opponents in the ring. In their title bout, Foreman tossed Frazier around like a rag doll, hitting him at will with bone-crunching punches that left Frazier ruined. He dropped Ken Norton to the mat in the second round of their fight. Foreman was the Mike Tyson of his day, only much worse because he was much taller and hit much harder and had even less of a sense of humor. George Foreman, at his peak, would have destroyed Tyson. The prefect villain for a motion picture, the specter of Foreman threatened to end Ali's ambitious attempt to return to heavyweight greatness. Very little of this was made clear in Ali's narrative.

Nobody thought Ali could beat Foreman. Nobody. Not even people in Ali's camp. In his corner. His wife, Belinda, feared for him. The agonizing wait for the fight (the bout was postponed six weeks because of a Foreman injury) was a Dantean hell for Ali, surrounded by chanting, cheerful supporters, but completely and utterly alone in the truest sense. Most experts suggest Ali himself was scared. Not scared of being beaten so much as scared of the implications a Foreman demolishing had for him, his career, his family, and all those who depended on him. On some level, Ali had to be scared of the sullen, near-mute giant Foreman, who had almost casually disposed of the two men who had all but ended Ali's career. Ali himself spoke of the Zaire match as being his last, that he intended to retire on the high note of trouncing Foreman, but it was widely speculated that this was more about the money, about one last big payday for Ali, whom most everyone assumed would lose and lose decisively.

In addition, Ali was not tremendously popular. He was, largely, thought of as a draft-evading Muslim big mouth. He'd been dropped by Frazier and Norton in his previous two major bouts, and had wins over only minor characters of minor consequence. Ali was turning into yesterday's news. Ali's one-man taunting campaign, intended to irk Foreman and keep him from going home (if Foreman went home, it was unlikely the fight would ever happen. If the fight didn't happen, it was unlikely anyone would take Ali seriously as a contender again), was, likely, Ali at his bravest— taunting Goliath when just the sound of Foreman hitting that heavy bag was enough to discourage most challengers.

This, the narrative drive of When We Were Kings, was largely absent from Ali. I mean, it was there, if you knew what you were looking at. If you already knew how vital this fight was and how alone Ali was and what a menace a real threat— Foreman was in those days. But Mann never paints a clear enough picture of why this is the climax of the film, a film many thought would center around the Ali-Frazier Trilogy. Ali-Frazier were the biggest events in boxing history, but Ali-Foreman was the fight of Ali's life. Foreman was Darth Vader, in a sense, and this part of the story was never made very clear. The film ended at the end of the bout, leaving, I would imagine, a great many young people puzzled and frustrated by the lack of definable narrative closure.

The worst crime, I suppose, is to have the very talented and very expensive Will Smith and not let him be Will Smith. The painful consequence of Smith's "miraculous transformation" into Ali is he lost Smith somewhere along the way. And that was simply criminal. The fire, the spark, the impetuous ad libs are Smith's stock and trade. Here, Smith is ACTING! Doing so much ACTING!

Every moment feels heavily scripted, carefully staged, without even one place in nearly three hours where I felt Will had an unguarded and unchoreographed moment. Will didn't crack me up, even once. Even funny lines where he's mocking Joe Frazier's clothes are delivered with a sleep-inducing thud, a millstone around Smith's neck. I've never thought of Smith as an actor. Maybe, in Ali, he was striving to be an actor. I'd rather Smith just be Smith and show up for work being the guy we paid nine dollars to see.

In Nixon, Anthony Hopkins was clearly doing Nixon, but he was obviously Anthony Hopkins as well. A composite character, a neo-Nixon, emerged from this combination of personalities  that satisfied us that, yes, this was Nixon on the screen, but it was also familiar enough as Hopkins for us to not be jolted out of the story. At first blush, Hopkins' stocky and short figure, loaded with his famous British accent, disappoints and our hearts sink at the first glimpse of his Nixon, drunk and defeated in the Lincoln Room of the White House, warming himself by the fire while running the air conditioner at the same time. However, within fifteen minutes of this three-hour biopic (why do biopics always have to be three hours?), we've all but lost Hopkins entirely, so utterly convincing is his Nixon, and so hypnotic is his Nixonian gestures, expressions and stupefying recreation of the late president's bad posture. Hopkins is Nixon, as unbelievable as the very idea, the very notion of this proper and slightly rotund British gent filling the oft-parodied shoes of Tricky Dick. Hopkins' Nixon never once slips into satire, though he gleefully bounds along the razor's edge. Hopkins plays a tragic Nixon, a man who has retreated beneath deep emotional scars where he has created for himself a kind of reality that justifies even the most heinous crimes, and makes it impossible for him to apologize— something that clearly would have saved his presidency, if only he had the moral fiber to do it. Hopkins is abetted by a superb supporting cast, led by the scene-chewing James Woods as a delightfully sleazy Bob Haldeman and Joan Allen in her Oscar®-nominated role of Patricia Nixon.

Alternatively, Aussie film director (and Bill Clinton clone) Roger Donaldson opted to not even try for a JFK clone in the melodrama Thirteen Days, choosing Bruce Greenwood, a man who has, I guess, a head shaped like Kennedy's but otherwise does not look or sound much like him, to fill the film's center chair. Thirteen Days succeeds, however, on the sheer strength of Greenwood's acting ability, previously seen as Ashley Judd's dastardly husband in Double Jeopardy and the grieving father in Atom Egoyan's brilliant The Sweet Hereafter. Greenwood simply runs away with it, turning in an understated and restrained but weighty performance that delivers every knot in JFK's stomach during  the Cuban Missile Crisis. Greenwood's Kennedy speaks loudest when he breathes life into the space between the lines of script, the other film within Days that could be aptly titled This Is The Reason Kennedy Was Assassinated. The cloud that hovers over Thirteen Days is our knowing Greenwood's heroic figure had less than thirteen months to live. Donaldson skillfully immerses his story in the unspoken horror of the Kennedy assassination, being a little obvious in places (like when JFK refuses to fire the Joint Chiefs for fear of Soviet Premier Khrushchev thinking there had been an attempted coup d'etat in Washington, and the scene where Kevin Conway's General Curtis LeMay snarls that, "Those damned Kennedys are going to ruin this country unless we do something about it," words all the more chilling from having been culled from documented records).

Kennedy's rich young Catholic skirt-chasing idealist (Donaldson, hypocritically, omitted the skirt-chasing, Greenwood's JFK seeming a bit too saintly, here) is a complete outsider to the Good Ol' Boy Washington power circle, the shadow cabinet of J. Edgar Hoover (curiously missing from Days) and the villain of the piece, Air Force Chief of Staff General Curtis LeMay, a hawk of the first order hammily played with mustache-twirling delight by Kevin Conway. Days firmly implicates LeMay in Kennedy's assassination, relying on historical records of LeMay's outbursts to and about Kennedy, a man he openly despised (LeMay was seen in the bleachers at the Kennedy autopsy, smoking a cigar and smiling). In those turbulent times, most of the power in DC belonged to guys like Hoover and less flamboyant and less-known names like LeMay, the director of Strategic Air Command (the nukes) who had commanded the country's air forces since World War II. During the Cuban crisis, LeMay ran missile tests, set off an H-bomb in the south pacific, and set all nuclear forces at DefCon 2 without Kennedy's permission. LeMay deliberately undermined Kennedy's careful and measured attempts to communicate with Khrushchev, sending U2's into Russian air space and personally interviewing F8 pilots to see if they'd been fired upon (which would give LeMay an excuse to start bombing Cuba). This was a guy who ran roughshod over Maxwell Taylor, the Joint Chiefs Chairman and LeMay's boss, and insisted on being in the Oval Office because he didn't trust Taylor, a Kennedy loyalist. He was a guy Kennedy absolutely should have fired, but there was speculation that Kennedy was afraid of LeMay. Most everyone else was. 

Days truly wins where it aptly demonstrates Kennedy's ongoing battle for control of his own White House. The real crisis in the Cuban Missile Crisis was not the Russians at all. We now know the Russian nuclear capability, the so-called "missile gap," was nearly 10-to-1 in our favor. Khrushchev would never have committed suicide by firing off a nuke at us and LeMay knew it. History has proved LeMay right: he could have blasted the Cubans into the stone age and still cleaned every Russian clock in Berlin (of course, hundreds if not thousands of American soldiers would die in the doing, but that was a small matter to LeMay). The real crisis was the Kennedys' (Bobby and Jack) struggle with these old guys, to get them to stop seeing the world as a big RISK game board, and end the diplomacy-at-gunpoint practiced, most wryly here, by Khrushchev himself. The exasperation on the face of Bill Smitrovich's Joint Chiefs Chairman Maxwell Taylor, a Kennedy loyalist, fairly screamed at us, throughout the film, that Kennedy was clearly irritating the military hawks, which was a dangerous thing to do. And that's the guilty pleasure of Days— not the non-crisis of Cuba (the Russian's never even put their forces on alert, and Russian nuclear subs were, before and after Cuba, still the greater threat) but the real crisis of a group of plump old farts, in power for a quarter of a century and accustomed to settling their problems at the business end of a nuclear warhead, trying to bulldoze the latest temporary occupant of the Oval Office, a kid and transient figure they neither liked nor respected (and this was, very much, my  tenure as Spider-Man editor at Marvel).

Days clearly implicates these men in Kennedy's assassination, and not without cause. Days helps make Oliver Stone's JFK case, and certainly fleshes out both JFK and Nixon, where Stone suggests a paranoid Nixon erased 18 minutes of Oval Office recordings of himself making his case for paying off the Watergate burglars rather than risking their testimony in open court (the burglars included Frank Sturgis and Howard Hunt's Track II CIA cell, which Vice President Nixon once ran out of the Eisenhower White House in efforts to remove Castro. Track II was subsequently used by President Nixon for a variety of political shenanigans. Stone asserts these contract agents, mostly Cuban exiles and survivors of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, likely assassinated Kennedy). Stone's Nixon suggests Nixon's battle to keep his tapes private was at least partially an unselfish act, Nixon realizing those tapes contain him babbling incessantly about Track II and its darker implications (which Nixon refers to, throughout the film, as "That Bay of Pigs thing," a euphemism for the Kennedy assassination and the CIA's involvement in it). The famous 18-minute gap, Stone intimates, contained Nixon babbling on about the "beast" they'd created, a beast Sam Waterston, in a chilling turn as CIA director Richard Helms, garrotes Hopkins' Nixon with in a stellar performance Stone dropped from the picture (the scene is only available on the discontinued laserdisc box set). It was an outrageous suggestion at the time that Nixon's greater fear was not of being caught in obstruction of justice but of revealing the CIA plot against Kennedyand Stone was thunderously scoffed at for connecting everything in this life to the Kennedy assassination. But time is typically good to Stone, who seems less paranoid with every fresh revelation about those dangerous times.

Greenwood's performance in Days almost makes us forgive Costner's horrid and ill-advised attempt at a Bahhston accent. Costner is clearly a guest in his own film, playing fly-on-the-wall Kenneth O'Donnell, RFK college pal and "Special Counsel" to the president (O'Donnell served as the de-facto Chief of Staff and was Kennedy's pit bull), as a head-nodding loudmouth who fancied himself JFK's last line of defense (the real O'Donnell was rumored to carry a pistol). I didn't understand Days' choice of minimalizing and humiliating Lyndon Johnson, a guy played for laughs by Walter Adrian but who was clearly one of the sharper tools in the shed and himself a card-carrying old fart Good Ol' Boy. Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Baines Johnson was a fiery power broker and one of the most powerful men in the country until his humiliating primary loss to Kennedy and career-ending acceptance of second chair, a job the Kennedys never wanted him to have and one he didn't want, but the looming threat of a Nixon White House threw the men together in what was documented as a very unhappy marriage. This was a guy who was never going to be president, not if the Kennedys had anything to say about it. There were rumors of JFK dropping LBJ from the ticket in '64, as the immensely popular president no longer needed Johnson's credibility and political weight to soundly thump the extremist Barry Goldwater. Bobby, not Johnson, was the clear heir apparent and, had JFK not been assassinated, the lonely VP slot would have likely been the finish to LBJ's otherwise remarkable career. The Kennedys minimized and tried to ignore LBJ, whom they saw as a toothless southern dinosaur, a tool needed only in election years. But LBJ knew more about the political waters the Kennedys were swimming in. There is absolutely no evidence to even suggest Johnson played any role in JFK's assassination. Even the most jaundiced cynics tend to agree there is no evidence whatsoever pointing Johnson's way. Which, in my Black Panther plot mindset, makes him the likeliest of conspirators, if for no other reason than that he emerged with the least stink on him.

I do not doubt LBJ helped cover the assassination up after the fact, and probably rightly so: the 1963 American public were in no position to digest the concept of a military coup, and the men who achieved it, led most certainly by some of the men portrayed in Days, could certainly remove LBJ easier than they removed Kennedy. These facts were likely not lost on Bobby Kennedy, who absolutely had to have known the truth about his brother's killing and so had to have known the danger to the country efforts to bring a prosecution would present. Not the least of which would be the certain smear campaign on JFK, releasing details about his women and his father's Chicago mob connections among other things (hence the amusing moment in Days where both O'Donnell and Kennedy are reluctant to "cancel on Daley;" a bit only amusing if the name Sam Giancana means anything to you). And those truly responsible for the coup would never be prosecuted, anyway. The "cancel on Daley" moment was one of several places where Donaldson injected humor into a relentlessly gloomy story, made all the moreso by our understanding of the eventual fate of the Kennedys and the chilling subtext, skillfully woven throughout this film, that these men were, ultimately, the architects of their own demise (Costner's O'Donnell, in the one moment in the whole film where Costner's powers present themselves, harangues RFK late in the film, "What if the problem isn't Khrushchev [or the Joint Chiefs] at all? What if it's you two." 

While nearly completely mute throughout Days, and looking extremely buffoonish, Lyndon Johnson had to know, better than Kennedy, just how dangerous it was to rub LeMay's nose in dog poop and publicly rip Navy Chief of Staff Admiral George Anderson a new one (as Dylan Baker's Defense Secretary Robert McNamara does in Days). The real Kennedy later fires Anderson as Chief of Staff, and an Anderson-like character shows up at the JFK autopsy in Stone's JFK. Boy it's fun to connect the dots, kids. Greenwood's power as an actor transcends the cheesy-ness of Days, a film with the stink of Made For TV on it (the stock footage the film uses to keep the budget down really hurt it, made it feel less like a docudrama and more like an ABC After School Special), were it not for assets like Greenwood and Steven Culp, a man who, without any obvious prosthetic assistance, looks and sounds so much like Bobby Kennedy he jolts you right out of the film when he wanders into the Oval office in the first act. I mean it, the story screeches to a stop when, within minutes of meeting Greenwood's impression of JFK, RFK's literal ghost, in a black-and-white Oliver Stone moment, wanders in. Culp (previously seen as Friend Number Two in Nurse Betty and as Bobby Kennedy in a Marilyn Monroe TV biopic) looks and sounds so much like RFK it makes your skin crawl and completely unsettled Christopher Lawford, RFK's actual nephew and the actor portraying Naval pilot Commander William B. Ecker. Culp's performance is marred only by the extremely apparent looping of nearly all of his dialogue as he grew into the Bahhston accent.

Unfortunately, I think Donaldson left a good deal of his film's credibility on the cutting room floor. The DVD boasts a nice assortment of deleted scenes, nearly all of which could have been left in, especially the original opening sequence in Buffalo, NY and Kenny O'Donnell's elevator confrontation with Robert McNamara. O'Donnell and McNamara are the strongest personalities surrounding the Kennedys, and this viewer was, in fact, wondering what their dynamic was like. A minute and a half is a small investment to fill in those blanks for us, and both of these deleted scenes were winners for Costner's O'Donnell, who is being an incredible prick in both (McNamara: anybody ever tell you you're a real prick? O'Donnell: the president. Just this morning. Twice). Many of the deleted scenes contained great character stuff that made the film less HBO-like. There's a great one where RFK passes his brother a note, "Now I know how Tojo felt planning Pearl Harbor," was cut because Donaldson feared the audience would be wondering who Tojo was. Screw who Tojo was I tend to think whenever a movie goes over my head a little, the film seems more "grown up" to me. When a film explains everything to me like I'm a two year-old, I start yawning. I would have gone home and looked Tojo up. The Buffalo scenes, jammed with hundreds of colorful extras, painted a broader picture of the film's budget, told the viewer this is a real movie, not a Made For TV movie. The scene gave the film scope and scale, and the mundane political considerations (the approaching "mid-term" congressional elections), while not germane to the immediate plot, grounded the film in a kind of trivial everyday routine, similar to the psuedo-documentary feel of Rob Lurie's brilliant The Contender

What made The Contender and Nixon work was none of the actors seemed aware they were in a movie, while, in Thirteen Days, most everyone but Greenwood seems extremely aware they are ACTING! There is so very much ACTING! going on, and Donaldson trimmed away these few un-self-conscious moments to move the plot along. But we need a little sauce for the goose: after all, the plot in and of itself is a bunch of guys sit in various rooms and talk. It feels very claustrophobic and very pay-per-view. The White House set, even the exteriors, were built on an interior soundstage and looked it. The odd echoing of their voices out on the portico and the not-quite-natural enough fake sunlight made the whole thing look cheap, as opposed to similar scenes in The Contender or Rob Reiner's masterpiece The American President. The White House detail was all there, but by trapping us on that soundstage, I starting getting that dog-on-a-leash awareness of how small Donaldson's world was, and Days began to feel more like a stage play than a big budget feature film. Now that I've seen the stuff still in the can, I applaud Donaldson for moving the plot along, but remind him also that in addition to establishing the plot and the characters, a good director must establish and protect the credibility of the film itself: we need to see our nine dollars up there on the screen. We need to be dazzled by spectacle, and a little background noise of unimportant political detail, a few over our heads references and a wider view of the earth itself helps us feel like the film was worth our time and money. Days' relentless sameness, intercut with cheesy archival footage, makes the film look cheap. Even the one scene where the film starts to look big-budget, Commander Ecker's low-level flight over Cuba, is marred by our never seeing the actual F8's take off or land (they cut away, in Made For TV fashion, to really bad CGI planes, the CGI planes do not appear to even be painted in some shots, looking gun metal blue (the actual planes are white) with no markings on them). Of course, finding functional F8's, or restoring the ones they borrowed for the film to flight capability, was likely cost prohibitive.  But could we get the CGI guys to at least paint their computer generated versions?

Like Ali, the biggest problem with Days is the star himself. As one of the film's producers, Costner may have rightly felt he needed to star in this film if it was to get made, and the notion of a point man for the audience to observe the Cuban Missile Crisis through is a credible one. But Costner rarely finds O'Donnell and O'Donnell is unsympathetic and bland: we are not rooting for him. We do not care about him, not even enough to dislike him. In fact, the movie is, curiously, bereft of much tension at all. Maybe because we know, all along, what the ending is. But, Greenwood's brilliance aside, the contorted faces of the supporting cast don't move me and I don't believe they're really all that worried about anything, or that there is anything to worry about. The excised scenes would have helped push the needle on O'Donnell in one direction or another, and certainly would have broadened the look of the film. And I really wish studios and directors would take more advantage of DVD's branching capabilities so I can decide if I want to watch those scenes in the film or not. In theaters, moving the plot along is the prime consideration. In home video, entertaining the individual, the audience of one, is the priority. I tend to like political dramas. Run time doesn't bother me nearly as much at home as it might in the theater. Put the scenes back in and let our individual remotes decide.

Mann used the composite character approach to great effect with Christopher Plumber's Oscar-worthy Mike Wallace in Mann's The Insider. Plumber, eschewing latex gimmickry, was clearly not Mike Wallace, but was a composite, a Plumber Wallace. But he had enough of Wallace's manner, enough of Wallace's eye, to transcend our skepticism and keep us invested in the story. In Ali, however, Mann reaches for Ali at the expense of Smith, losing Smith in the process, and most of Ali's potential audience with it. Had more of Smith been in the mix, had we gone for the composite Ali rather than the literal Ali, this film would have been hilarious, I mean a scream, and the box office would have been far healthier.

Director Mann with his Frazier and Ali

In a film that got so very much right, I am stunned at how wrong they got Ali. I do not personally know Muhammad Ali (although my mother did), I know Ali the persona. That's who most people were paying to see. They were also paying to see Will Smith. In discarding both of those personalities, perhaps in some stretch for accuracy (in a film dominated by latex), Mann fatally mistepped and crashed his biopic. I have absolutely no clue how Smith won a nomination for this performance. For this lifeless, too-flat, too-literal take on the most flamboyant sports figure in history. When I was a kid, almost any boy on my block could do a better and wittier Ali than Smith, and, honestly, I'm not sure I could blame Smith as I believe Mann was firmly at the helm.

This film, like When We Were Kings, ends with Ali's triumph over George Foreman in 1974, which fairly invites comparison between Ali and Kings, which only hurts Ali. Kings was a documentary about the Foreman bout, while Ali strived to tell a more complete story. A wiser thought may have been to end Ali with the second most important bout in Ali's life, his third, final and most brutal encounter with his arch nemesis Joe Frazier.

Of course, Frazier was only Ali's nemesis to the extent that Ali made him one. Mann's biopic rightly shows the two young fighters cooking up the first dramatic bout, in 1971 (wherein Frazier dealt Ali his first loss). While never the best of friends, these men were hardly enemies: they were professional sportsmen, and Ali chided Frazier into Ali's circus act to drum up the gate (something Frazier may not have understood at first, but certainly as their bouts grew into a franchise, he realized the importance of dancing to Ali's tune).

Ali-Frazier III, The Thrilla In Manila, took place on October 1, 1975, with Muhammad Ali fighting with his doctor's permission but against common sense (his doctors had detected a small "tearing" of brain tissue, and Ali was under great pressure to retire). Ring historians consider this one of the greatest boxing matches of all time.


Larry Schwartz of ESPN .Com said:

The bout turned out to be three fights in one: The first had Ali, the champion, outboxing and outscoring Frazier, nailing him with clean, sharp shots. The second fight, from the fifth through the 11th, had Frazier giving a terrible pounding to Ali. The third fight began in the 12th round and somehow Ali, with the will of a champion, tore into Frazier for the next three rounds.

When the bell rang for the 15th round, Frazier, with his eyes almost completely shut, remained in his corner as his trainer, Eddie Futch, threw in the towel.

"Man, I hit him with punches that'd bring down the walls of a city," Frazier said. "Lawdy, lawdy, he's a great champion."

Ali said, "It was like death. Closest thing to dying that I know of."


It is widely suspected Ali's current struggle with Parkinson's disease had its origin, in large measure, from the pounding he took in the Philippines. Although Ali went on to around twenty or so other bouts before his humiliation at the hands of former sparring partner Larry Holmes in 1980 and Trevor Berbick in 1981, the Thrilla was, arguably, the champ's last great battle. Had the credits rolled on Frazier's accolades and Ali's triumph, Ali would invite fewer comparisons to Kings and, thus, would have suffered less.


Where was this guy? Ali ambushes Frazier at Frazier's Philadelphia training camp


Looking at how the film is cut, at how the promo pieces are cut, it seems either Mann or his editors at some point realized how bad Smith's Ali was. They minimized his dialogue (and seemed to have looped a great deal of it as well). Minimized the dialogue of one of the greatest motormouths of all time, a man who never stops yakking through When We Were Kings, a film with much better music, by the way (to hear a clip, click here). A loudmouth of velocity and range and fervor and wit and charm, almost none of which come across in Smith's Ali. 

I wish Smith could get a rematch. This time with Barry Sonnenfeld or Ridley Scott or, better, Reggie Hudlin, Bill Duke or— maybe the best candidate Ron Shelton (Tin Cup, White Men Can't Jump). Shelton's Jump has the verve and energy completely missing from the lifeless Ali, a film so big and so important that they forgot to have fun and forgot to make it funny. As important and big as Ali, appropriately, should have been, Mann should also have remembered the best parts of Mann's Last of the Mohicans was Daniel Day-Lewis making fun of British (and audience) expectations of Native Americans (Steven Waddington's deliciously arrogant Major Heyward demands of Day-Lewis' Hawkeye, "There's a war going on. How is it that you are heading west?" To which Day-Lewis replies, "Well, we kind of  face to the North, and, real sudden-like, turn left."  There's not even one moment like that in all of Ali).

The real shame, though, is kids— Will Smith fans of all ages and ethnicities— likely flocked to Ali only to come away with a kind of shoulder-shrugging ambivalence to this man, one of the greatest legends of our time. I believe, in his attempts at reverence and, perhaps, solemnity, Mann forgot to put some fun in here, and in so doing, squandered an enormous opportunity, given Smith's talents and his audience, to introduce Muhammad Ali to a whole new generation. The difference between this film and a great film would have been to let Will Smith not only be Ali, but be Will Smith at the same time. That, my friends, would have truly been a knockout. Ali: D, Thirteen Days: B, When We Were Kings: A, Nixon: A, The American President: A, The Contender: A, Last of The Mohicans: B, The Insider: A.


Christopher J. Priest
June 1 2002

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