Character Witness 

Dealing with a legend in Ali.

This is God's act. We're just actors in it. If Jesus was here, everybody would want his autograph, and if films were around when he was around, they'd be filming him. I think Muhammad is a prophet. How you gonna beat God's son? Anybody love poor people and little people got to be a prophet. He was champion of the world, had a long table full of food, had a house for his mother and for him. Told them to take it and shove it if he couldn't love his God. What you think he is?"

This is Muhammad Ali cornerman Drew "Bundini" Brown, speaking in the fantastic 1996 documentary When We Were Kings, about Ali's 1974 upset of then-world heavyweight champion George Foreman at the "Rumble in the Jungle." No other moment in the film, or in Michael Mann's new biopic Ali, quite captures the uniqueness of Ali's story. Since the creation of the media celebrity in the post-WWII era, no other similar icon has lived a life of such mythic resonance. Other entertainers have been politically active and have suffered consequences -- Paul Robeson particularly comes to mind. Others have had careers of novelistic richness -- Elvis Presley, certainly. But Ali's story has an air of the biblical -- in pop culture terms he's a little bit Samson (strength), a little bit Jesus (sacrifice), and a little bit Moses (political leadership). Mann's ambitious if not entirely successful film taps into this aspect of Ali's iconicity but loses its focus as it moves along and never really delves far beyond a surface appreciation of Ali's legacy.

Ali focuses on a 10-year stretch of the fighter's career, from 1964, when he first became the heavyweight champ by defeating the brutish Sonny Liston, through 1974, when an underdog Ali regained the title from a bigger, stronger Liston clone, George Foreman. Some have complained that this selective sample of Ali's life neglects the more troubling later episodes of his career, when he fought too long and took too much punishment. But Mann's decision to focus on the heart of Ali's boxing career and political controversy frees the film, at least somewhat, from the overly familiar arc that "Great Man" movies tend to have and also allows him to focus on Ali's political significance.

Mann's film fits a three-act structure, with diminishing artistic returns. The film's opening section is a beautifully orchestrated montage that gives young Cassius Clay's mid-'60s rise proper context: that of a widespread infusion of African-American culture and confidence. The montage is set to the tune of an ecstatic Sam Cooke club performance and also outlines in brief, deft strokes Clay's political awakening -- as a child on the bus glimpsing a story of Emmet Till's lynching and at another moment watching his father paint portraits of a blue-eyed, blond-haired Jesus; later as a young man listening to Malcolm X speak. Clay is wordless throughout this montage until it ends, abruptly, thrillingly, at the Liston weigh-in, Clay breaking the silence with a trademark harangue: "Sonny Liston, you ain't no champ! You a chump! Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! You want to lose your money, bet on Sonny! Rumble, young man, rumble!"

Mann spends a considerable amount of time on the first Liston fight and, as with the five other Ali bouts the film covers, the fight choreography is exquisite -- exciting but understated. It's neither the arty abstraction of Martin Scorsese's Raging Bull nor the gonzo exaggeration of the Rocky movies but a tightly shot, realistically staged spectacle that respects and communicates the brutality and artistry of the "sport."

The film remains exciting through Clay's post-fight announcement of dedication to the Nation of Islam, his transformation into Muhammad Ali, and especially the initial scenes of Ali's outspoken refusal to be inducted into the Army during the Vietnam War (including Ali's famous explanation: "Ain't no Vietcong ever called me nigger"). But Mann starts to lose his way during the film's second act, Ali's three-and-a-half-year exile from the sport, when the director fails to penetrate the surface of Ali's brooding.

Ultimately, Ali is a succession of first-rate acting and exciting moments that don't really add up to much. It's hard to imagine anyone else matching Will Smith's Ali -- his physical transformation and imitation of the champ's sing-songy vocal delivery fairly startling -- but this has to be one of the rare occasions when the Hollywood star is actually less attractive and charismatic than the real-life figure he portrays. And the supporting performances are almost uniformly excellent, especially Jamie Foxx as cornerman Brown and an almost unrecognizable Jon Voight as sportscaster Howard Cosell. Mario Van Peebles also makes a very credible Malcolm X.

Ali's final section, a long, faithful recreation of the "Rumble in the Jungle" with Foreman, is respectable filmmaking that dutifully recounts all the aspects of that momentous event, from Ali's heroic status among Africans to the dubious introduction of Don King to Ali's famous rope-a-dope boxing strategy. But When We Were Kings, an Academy Award winner from only a half-decade ago, recounted all this with actual footage and more insight, and Mann's film just doesn't hold up next to that unavoidable comparison.

Like Brown says in When We Were Kings, "This is no Hollywood set, this is real. Hollywood would come in, take these types of scenes and set them up. Have somebody in the movies playing his life. This is real, we don't pick up no script." n

The odds were against the cinematic biography A Beautiful Mind, a fact-based account of Nobel Prize-winner John Forbes Nash Jr., the mathematician whose career and marriage were derailed by a decades-long bout with schizophrenia. Indeed, there seemed to be little dramatically compelling about Nash's life, much of it set in a stuffed-shirt academic world punctuated by equations, digits, and economic theories. And it's even more daunting to depict the vagaries of a personality disorder, which this film attempts to explain through such storytelling liberties as composite characters and flights of fiction that go against a true historical study. Yet director Ron Howard makes it all add up for this poignant tale of one man suffering from his peculiar burden of genius, as Nash dances on the precipice of madness for nearly 50 years.

Russell Crowe, a long way from his Academy Award-winning work in Gladiator's toga party, portrays West Virginia whiz kid Nash, and the film opens with the young man's 1947 entry into Princeton. Handsome yet devoid of social skills encompassing basic human interaction ("I don't like people, and they don't like me," he admits), he skips classes and mostly ignores his student peers in order to find "that original idea" which will separate his talents from the pack.

As A Beautiful Mind amusingly posits, however, Nash's observations of his horny classmates as they ponder how to approach a blonde bombshell at a campus bar, combined with his own formula for such romantic strategizing, leads him to calculate new concepts regarding governing dynamics and the mathematics of competition that soon challenge the long-held theories of Scottish economist Adam Smith (1723-1790). So it figures that six years later Nash becomes a valued instructor at MIT's Wheeler Labs, where he finds the love of his life: Alicia (Requiem for a Dream's Jennifer Connelly), a cutie-pie student from his calculus class. ("Against all probability," he exults to a colleague, "she finds me attractive on a number of different levels!") Nash is also hailed as an expert code-buster who gets summoned by the Pentagon to crack hidden messages buried under a slew of seemingly random integers.

Amid Nash's staid, somewhat drab existence, two very colorful characters manage to stand out: Nash's Princeton roommate Charles Herman (A Knight's Tale's Paul Bettany), a go-for-the-gusto chap who in later scenes is toting along his motherless niece Marcee (Vivien Cardone), and Department of Defense head William Parcher (Ed Harris), who dragoons Nash into the shadowy world of Cold War espionage and hush-hush top secrets. Parcher convinces Nash that the Russians plan to nuke America and instructs him to divine covert information found in national magazines like Look and Time; the spy even implants a radioactive isotope into Nash's arm with select access codes that will gain him entry into classified areas so he can drop off the need-to-know information.

The heightened paranoia proves too much for Nash, however. He's almost to the point of thinking that the Commies are under his bed. And in a way, he's right: The mathematician is eventually diagnosed as a schizophrenic, unable to distinguish reality from the imagined demons who are doing some nasty numbers on his life. Imagine being subjected to 72 hours straight of Oliver Stone's JFK and you'll get a rough idea of the heady conspiracy theories that contribute to Nash's meltdown.

The script by Akiva Goldsman (Batman Forever, Practical Magic) is "inspired," according to the press kit, by Sylvia Nasar's biography A Beautiful Mind and the institutional background provided by his real-life parents (dad Goldsman is a therapist, his mom is a child psychologist). And since Mind isn't a screen biography in the literal sense, a recent USA Today article cited some movie-industry wisdom that the drama may experience tough sledding for key nominations in upcoming movie competitions, a fate that befell the cliched rewrite of imprisoned boxer Rubin "Hurricane" Carter's history for director Norman Jewison's The Hurricane (1999).

Yet director Howard manages to finesse Nash's perceived and imagined worlds with a straight-faced surrealism that competently recalls the stylish trickery of M. Night Shyamalan's spooktacular The Sixth Sense (1999) and could indeed lure moviegoers back for a second viewing. It's not all sober psychoanalysis, however. A heavily medicated Nash asks an old friend who's visiting if he's ever met his friend Harvey, the fantasy rabbit from the 1950 James Stewart comedy, then allows, "There's no point in being nuts if I can't have a little fun." (A subtle inside joke also features Marcee clutching a Dr. Seuss book, a reference to Howard's 2000 box-office blockbuster How the Grinch Stole Christmas.) As he did with his role as Big Tobacco whistle-blower Jeffrey Wigand in director Michael Mann's 1999 drama The Insider, Russell Crowe expertly keeps his hunkiness in hiding to etch Nash's nerdy, little-boy-lost bravado in the early scenes, notably when he tells Charles, "I'm well-balanced: I have a chip on both shoulders." The Aussie actor pulls off a stateside accent for his mathematician that's as American as apple pi, while fleshing out Nash's physical appearance with a shambling duck walk that negates his otherwise strapping presence. Crowe always captures the intensity of Nash's introverted character, at times suggesting the pain of his own thought processes to solve math problems in the first half, then the torment that comes with attempting to rationalize the non-existence of his own delusions in the film's later portions.

Crowe receives expressive support from actress Jennifer Connelly, whose Alicia becomes an elegant tower of strength who stands by her schizo, and Paul Bettany's showy incarnation of pleasure-seeking Charles. And Ed Harris as the secret agent is intentionally larger than life, especially when his jet-black sedan is screeching through the streets, on the run from gun-toting foreign enemies. Sporting a wide-brimmed hat, Eisenhower-era business suit, and his usual chiseled face, Harris resembles a comic-book character drawn by Fantastic Four artist Jack Kirby. Skillfully guided by director Howard's generous doses of humanity, A Beautiful Mind's sturdy drama probes the essence of madness with nary an emotional miscalculation. -- Bill DeLapp

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