Lewins barely misses a facet of Ali’s career, as we move, seamlessly, between tales of his boxing triumphs, to his relationships with his family, to his rivalry with Joe Frazier and his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Each individual aspect is explored thoroughly, with an array of candid, unchartered access to those who know Ali most personally, complimented with incredible home recordings of conversations with his daughters that he had taped for prosperity. However in every single talking head interview, and in every bit of archive footage collated – it all seems to be worshipping this venerable sportsman. “I looked into his eyes and I saw God”, a personal highlight.
Of course there’s always a place for such adulation, and to celebrate the career of such a revered icon is perfectly acceptable, particularly in how alluring and genial he is. But to create a fair, balanced piece of documentary filmmaking, you need to explore both sides to the subject’s demeanour. Whenever we do delve into a potentially negative theme, such as the rivalry with Frazier, it’s still glossed over somewhat, with a positive spin put on everything. So rather than explore how Ali publically, and vindictively bullied his opponent, quite savagely at times, instead we only hear about how guilty Ali felt, how he cried in shame. Then we hear about how Frazier finally forgave him. Lewins always looks for the positive angle – and this proves a consistent issue throughout.
As such, we have a feature free of conflict, which proves to be detrimental to the finished product. Any glimpse of contrariety is never substantially covered. Such as when we meet Muhammad Ali Jr., who briefly discusses how challenging it is to emulate his father, and the stress it has caused him. He also speaks about being bullied at school because of his family ties – and yet we don’t stay with him, despite it being arguably the most poignant, empathetic interview of them all. Instead we move swiftly on to the next person to discuss his father’s wonderment, with lengthy sequences about Ali’s generosity focused on instead, such as how he visited a dying child in hospital, or when he let a fan stay at his house for a short while. Wonderful, kind gestures certainly, but not matters that should take precedence in this picture.
There is no denying that Lewins has presented an accomplished piece of cinema – the implementation of music is masterful, while the editing of all the footage is effortless and confident. But regrettably it’s more the content where the misgivings arise, not the manner in which it has been told.