Having seen most of the big year-end movies now, I can unreservedly say that Michael Mann's Ali is my favorite. I was as impressed with its expansive portrait of the former heavyweight champ, which features Will Smith in a powerhouse lead performance, as I was underwhelmed by Mann's last outing, The Insider. But that enthusiasm comes with a couple of qualifications that should be admitted. First, I haven't encountered many other critics who share it; the general view of the film seems to be mixed to vaguely positive. Second, Ali's particular mix of virtues is so unusual and evanescent that it resists any easy description.
A critic friend who liked the movie said he wanted to see it again because he spent most of the first viewing figuring out that it wasn't the film he expected it to be. I'm sure that will be a common reaction. When you hear the concept, the director and the star, what do you picture Ali to be like? Well, chances are it's not like that. Moreover, I can't think of any screen biography that Mann's film closely resembles; like it or not, it dances to its own tune.
My own erroneous expectations were based on a conversation I had in October with Remember the Titans screenwriter Gregory Allen Howard. Howard, who is credited with Ali's story, said he wrote the film's initial screenplay. He described that script as focusing on Ali's relationship with his painter father, the thesis being that Ali spent his life moving from one substitute father to another--Angelo Dundee, Elijah Muhammad, Howard Cosell, Don King, and so on. But, Howard added, when Michael Mann got involved, he downplayed the story's father angle and made it "political." That was very easy to believe, considering all the political troubles Ali endured in the 1960s and '70s, the muckraking pretensions of The Insider, and the fact that Ali's credited screenwriters (Stephen J. Rivele and Christopher Wilkinson) previously wrote Oliver Stone's Nixon.
Well, guess what. Though Ali doesn't stint in depicting the political difficulties Ali faced, it's not "political" in the narrow, issues-obsessed, ideological sense. (To be fair, Nixon, one of the most extraordinary and underrated films of the last decade, isn't that way either.) Nor does it impose a standard dramatic arc on Ali's life, or attempt to give us a particular interpretation that would explain the course of his career (as Howard's father-centric drama would have done). In short, it avoids the tacks that most other filmmakers would have taken.
In terms of getting a handle on Ali, Mann's most important decision was to focus on a 10-year slice of the fighter's life, beginning just before he took the heavyweight crown from Sonny Liston in 1964 and ending with the "Rumble in the Jungle" in Zaire in 1974, when he regained the crown from George Foreman. This scheme is a handy one in many senses: It starts with one highly charged pugilistic battle and concludes with another; it surveys a biographical terrain of epic-yet-manageable scope; and it covers the most dramatic and public part of Ali's life, the one that made him a worldwide legend.
Yet, contrary to what this span might suggest, the effect isn't to concentrate on Ali the fighter, the sports demigod. Ali aims to give us nothing less than Ali the man, and to a remarkable extent, it succeeds.
The two big fights serve as tentpoles between which Mann strings many things. Boxing is chief among them, of course, and the film not only depicts several crucial matches in a brilliantly kinetic style, it also treats the sport's endless array of peripheral concerns, from training to the media, and ambient personalities such as Cossell (Jon Voight, in an agreeably hootable and adroit impersonation) and Don King (Mykelti Williamson). Among other aspects of Ali's public life, we witness the long legal battle over his crown that stemmed from his stance against the Vietnam War and resulted in a Supreme Court victory; the furor over his embrace of Islam, his friendship with Malcolm X (Mario Van Peebles) and eventual rejection of him in favor of Elijah Muhammad (Albert Hall). And more or less out of the limelight, the story relates Ali's struggles with his family over matters including changing his name from Cassius Clay, and his various romances and first two marriages, to Sonji Roi (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Belinda (Nona Gaye).
Mann puts an understandable emphasis not only on the exceptional man at the film's center but also on the roiling background against which his story played out. In quick glimpses or more extended looks, we see key events of the era, including the assassinations of both Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. Granted, not everything here is conveyed in tremendous depth; for my taste, the movie does too little to explain Islam's attraction for Ali or his allegiance to Elijah Muhammad. Yet it is truly remarkable that Ali is able to convey so much about the "life and times" in a way that feels organic and coherent, never rushed and programmatic.
Great credit for the film's fascination must go to Will Smith, who went to incredible lengths to make himself look, sound and box like the champ. For those who remember Ali's patter, poetry and exuberantly outsized personality from television in the '60s, Smith's embodiment of it proves little short of uncanny. Yet, far beyond simple accuracy, the actor conveys Ali's warmth, uncertainties and inner strength.
The movie's other key asset is Mann's engrossing visual style, which turns the loose camerawork, natural lighting and skewed angles of documentary filming into a kind of fluid, understated formalism. Generally, I'm not a fan of this kind of docudramatic naturalism, which often comes across as a TV commercial's idea of art. But in Ali, in Mann's superbly controlled handling, it is expressive on more levels than one, pulling us into the characters' lives while also evoking the cinéma vérité style that characterized the period of Ali's ascendancy. (Mann must surely have taken a few cues from William Klein's gorgeous but little-seen 1969 documentary Float Like a Butterfly--Sting Like a Bee.)
Emmanuel Lubezki's vibrantly subtle photography and John Myhre's exquisite production design help give the film a surface that brings the '64-'74 period back to life with an almost hyperrealist exactness. Such accuracy counts for a lot, finally, because it gives Mann a concrete basis for his explorations of mood and character.
The movie starts out intercutting Ali's training in Miami with a nightclub performance by Sam Cooke (David Elliott). The juxtaposition neatly summarizes the film's poetic cornerstones: an appreciation for the mundane grit of activities like solitary jogging, together with a sense of texture and movement that is all but musical. Back when Ali was at his peak, radio was full of what was called soul music. In a very commendable and sophisticated way, Ali is the cinematic equivalent of that: Call it a soul movie. Far more than paying tribute to his boxing prowess, it reminds us of the greatness of Muhammad Ali's soul. Granted, that's not news to much of the world, but Mann's film provides a wonderful restatement of it.
Muhammad Ali rightly said he was beautiful, and it was beauty of a special kind: The light came from within. Tom Cruise likewise has cause for thinking he is beautiful, but he also has reason to fear, because his beauty is so obviously the fragile, perishing kind that belongs to the surface only.
It's thus not surprising that, as his looks hit what must be their natural peak, Cruise has developed what seems like a kind of pathological narcissism. His films now seem to be mainly about his face (and to a lesser extent, his physique). Mission: Impossible 2 and his supporting role in Magnolia were the celluloid equivalents of full-length mirrors, in which Cruise could muse, "What a godlike mortal am I, with that perfectly chiseled mug and million kilowatt smile." If he could pay half his vast fortune and be able to kiss himself, do you suppose he would?
The flipside of this physical self-obsession, of course, is terror at the prospect of beauty's decay. That's what the wretched Vanilla Sky seems to be about on the clumsiest of self-referential levels. Tom plays a hotshot Manhattan publishing executive whose philandering ways and, yep, self-obsession contribute to an auto accident in which he is horribly disfigured. (Cruise spends about a quarter of the film in post-accident makeup, and another quarter in a prosthetic mask. Again, the cosmos revolves around his face.)
Appallingly written and lamely directed by Cameron Crowe, who performed the same duties on Jerry Maguire, a superior film made before Tom went into his pathological tailspin, Vanilla Sky is a weird sci-fi thriller that oh-by-the-way wants to be taken as a modern morality play. Which is to say that it features a bad girl played by Cameron Diaz, who should fire her manager, and a good girl played by Penelope Cruz, who manages to survive the cinematic disaster relatively unscathed.
The weirdest thing about the film is that it provides a narrative equivalent of Cruise's sleek-surface-with-nothing-inside. It was based on Open Your Eyes, a film by Alejandro Amenabar, the young Spanish writer-director of the Nicole Kidman-starring supernatural thriller The Others. Both films have the same gaping flaw: They're dream films that don't establish the daylight reality from which the dream diverges. In Vanilla Sky, the result is a movie in which nothing is really at stake, which explains why you hear viewers yawning and shifting in their seats so often.
I first took Amenabar's inept scripting as simple incompetence, but I'm now willing to accept it as post-modernism (it's hard to tell the difference, I know). In any case, it is suited to the current state of Tom Cruise, whose billion-dollar smile is getting scarier by the minute. He now smiles like an FX-generated droid out of A.I. You think: If he stretches those cheek muscles one more millimeter, his head will explode and we'll be left with a puff of smoke. But truthfully, a puff of smoke would be better than Vanilla Sky, which inadvertently testifies to the ugliness of skin-deep beauty.