Ali

The greatest films made on biographical subjects--whether it's Mizoguchi's UTAMARO AND HIS FIVE WOMEN, Eisenstein's IVAN THE TERRIBLE, Becker's MONTPARNASSE 19, Rudolph's MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRLCE, Tarkovsky's ANDREI RUBLEV, Pialat's VAN GOGH or Mann's ALI--were made by people who weren't interested in biography, but in life. ALI is what Orson Welles meant when he called for a hallucinatory cinema. There's the opening sequence, which folds a decade in on itself; the boxing rings that might as well be floating on an asteroid in space; the practice on the roof, the death of Malcolm X. All of that, and so much more--little moments as much as big ones, like the turns in Will Smith's tomcat voice or Jamie Foxx's bald spot. It began with a massive script that would have covered the entire life of Muhammad Ali from his childhood until the present. It passed from hand to hand, with Oliver Stone, Spike Lee, and Norman Jewison (who's ended up making his own boxing movie with THE HURRICANE) all opting out over the years. Thankfully, because none of them are one-tenth the director that Michael Mann is. The turmoil may be Stone's subject matter (which doesn't mean he ever understood it one bit) and the subject matter may be more in Lee's milieu; the less said about Jewison the better. But none of them could have made this movie. Taking that monstrous idea, Mann and his co-writer, Eric Roth, all but cut Ali himself out--to the point where, because he is no longer the film's focus (literally, as Will Smith is often a blur against a crisp background, sort of the opposite of James Caan in THIEF), his presence becomes even more impressive. Sure, he's still in almost every scene, but it's never about what mattered to Ali, but about when he mattered (or didn't) to others. It's not about a man's life, but about the experience of living; and not about his place in history, but how history found a place for him. ALI is one of the greatest achievements of American cinema in the last decade.