“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” is set in a boxing ring of sorts. The new HBO movie takes place in the Supreme Court of 1970, where the justices and their young clerks are addressing the case of Muhammad Ali’s conscientious objector status as a devout Muslim. The battle is quiet, political, and insidious, and the punches come from behind and — with President Nixon pushing for the justices to uphold Ali’s conviction — from above. But it is a significant battle whose issues involving the role of the Supreme Court continues to resonate to this day.
Oddly, “Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” which premieres on Saturday night at 8, is underwhelming — and especially so, given the drama of the situation, which includes antiwar protesters outside the court and the pressures due to Ali’s very public persona. It’s not boring, thanks to strong performances by Christopher Plummer as the ailing Justice John Marshall Harlan and Frank Langella as conservative Justice Warren E. Burger. But still, the loose script, by Shawn Slovo, doesn’t drive home the size and intensity of the moment. It meanders through the lives of the justices and their clerks when it should zero in on the case at hand.
Our way into the story is through Harlan’s new clerk, Kevin Connolly (Benjamin Walker), who pushes Harlan to keep his eyes on the law, not on the politics of the court. He argues about the cases with the other clerks, including an Ivy League snob played by Pablo Schreiber with a painful upper crust accent (why, why?). Schreiber has one of the entertaining lines, as his character mockingly announces, “The Nation of Islam — what is that?” Why we need to know about Kevin’s pregnant wife is unclear, but it’s one of the small detouring bits that only serves to throw the movie off point.
The cast keeps giving us respected names and faces — Fritz Weaver as Hugo Black, Harris Yulin as William O. Douglas, Peter Gerety as William Brennan Jr., Barry Levinson as Potter Stewart, Ed Begley Jr. as Harry Blackmun, and Danny Glover as Thurgood Marshall, who recused himself from the case. None of them, though, seems to have more than a handful or two of lines and a single character trait. Only Plummer and Langella get to shine, as they embody opposite approaches to their jobs.
Director Stephen Frears has folded in many lively clips of Ali from the 1960s and ’70s, which animate the story. At the same time, they call attention to all the energy and sharpness that’s missing.
Matthew Gilbert can be reached at email@example.com.