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Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Rumble in the High Court

10/18/2013 03:42 pm ET | Updated Dec 18, 2013

A monstrous superstar refuses to fight in a war so controversial that it brought about a social revolution, and defends his position until he's heard at the highest levels. It was world news when the U.S. Supreme Court took on the heavyweight champion's case in his bid to legally decline to serve in the Vietnam War, and I had no idea it ever happened. Though I'm a bit embarrassed to admit I had never heard of Clay V. United States, I suspect I'm one of the millions-strong target audience that Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is aiming to educate.

Ali stayed seated as he was called to service in 1967, knowing he was committing a felony that carried a steep fine and possible prison time. His boxing license was suspended, his title was stripped, and the Justice Department determined that his newfound religious faith rooted in the Nation of Islam didn't satisfy the requirements for conscientious objector status. Banned from the ring, Ali launched into the heart of the anti-war and racial upheaval of the era -- a culture battle which many argue continues to this day -- with all the associated hate and love focused directly at him.

The Stephen Frears-helmed HBO film begins a few years later as the justices deliberate over whether they'll take the case. Screen vets Frank Langella and Christopher Plummer play Chief Justice Warren Burger and Justice John Harlan, two well-known conservatives unlikely to vote in favor of a perceived draft-dodger. By all rights, the whole thing should play out just as President Nixon wants, with Ali behind bars and the court tacitly approving of the events in Southeast Asia, but the case goes in a wildly different direction.

Though initially in full support of the Justice Department's decision, Harlan is swayed by his clerk, Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), who provides him with insight into the Nation of Islam and a precedent that the judge can't ignore. Though Connolly is a fictional character, the young, liberal idealist is the perfect catalyst to send Harlan on his quite historically accurate mission to grant Ali his freedom.

The case is a snapshot of an angry nation, and the judges' decision -- whether they like it or not -- will be a broad pronouncement on the war and the state of religion and race. Because they understand the watershed moment the outcome will provoke, the justices dig through the details and come up with a technicality to produce a ruling that will change everything and nothing.

I knew basically none of this before I saw the film, so as a teaching tool alone, Greatest Fight is worthy of substantial praise. With Ali represented in archival footage and the judges taking center stage, I learned about arch-liberal Justice William Brennan (Peter Gerety) who ensured Ali's case was at least considered; Harry Blackmun (Ed Begley Jr.), Burger's conservative compatriot who's showing his first signs of his eventual shift to the left; ex-pro football player Byron White (John Bedford Lloyd); moderate pragmatist Republican Potter Stewart (director Barry Levinson!); and Hugo Black (Fritz Weaver), who was vehemently anti-war, a champion of civil rights, and was once -- though it's not mentioned in the film -- a member of the Ku Klux Klan. My biggest gripe with the film is actually an issue with historical fact: Thurgood Marshall had to recuse himself from the Ali case due to his involvement with the initial ruling so we get to see very little of the ever-awesome Danny Glover. This was a brilliant and savvy bunch, and the film, penned by Shawn Slovo, deftly presents them in all their conflicted, stubborn humanity.

It's amazing that such a polarizing, internationally visible case involving arguably the most famous person in the world is now a historical footnote that can be the subject of a legal drama with a surprise ending, but I guess that's how it works. The story of the day, no matter how huge, is just a blur a few decades down the line, and if it isn't retold, it's lost.

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight is now airing on HBO.