TV Party is a Friday feature in which Film Editors Dominick Mayer and Justin Gerber, alongside Editor-in-Chief Michael Roffman, suggest one movie apiece to enjoy over the weekend. Joining them each week will be two rotating film staff writers to help round out the selections. Seek out any of the films via Netflix, Amazon, Redbox, Hulu, OnDemand, or abandoned Blockbuster and Hollywood Video stores — however you crazy kids watch movies these days! Enjoy ’em for the first time, a second, or maybe a redemptive third.
*punch* “Welcome to Earth.”
It’s strange how, over time, so many people have come to associate Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day with that moment, the one in the picture above. It’s more or less a throwaway and comes into the film at roughly the halfway point, after the Earth has been decimated by a series of coordinated tasks by a hyper-advanced alien race that ends up being too advanced to fear or prepare for our indomitable MS-DOS technologies. But I digress. Independence Day is one of the definitive American summer movies, and it was a vehicle perfectly tailored to mid-‘90s Smith, the film that catapulted him to indisputable, film-opening leading man status.
It’s also a ridiculous amount of fun if you can swallow a fair deal of affectionate jingoism in your action movies. (Then again, how many modern disaster films, or any films, have attempted to envision a world in which absolute political unity is achieved as the result of Randy Quaid making the ultimate sacrifice in service of his country?) It’s loud, it’s played out on the most colossal scale imaginable, and if Smith’s star-making, endlessly charismatic performance as a frustrated would-be astronaut doesn’t sell you, then I’ll end with this hard sell: Jeff Goldblum.
The most perilous decade of Muhammad Ali’s boxing career is on full display. After winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the outspoken athlete goes toe-to-toe against the United States government, the Nation of Islam, and succeeding heavyweight champions Joe Frazier and George Foreman, all amidst the Vietnam War and the escalating Civil Rights Movement.
Unlike the majority of Mann’s leading men, Ali isn’t exactly alone in his troubles. He’s ably surrounded by his lovers, his colleagues, and his family and crew. And it’s in these interactions that we see the Ali we’ve known about for years; he’s charming, hilarious, and overtly prideful. However, there’s an unshakeable pathos to this character that surfaces in the quieter moments, whether he’s jogging through the streets of wintry Chicago or showering alone before a fight. In these little snapshots, the humanity of Ali peeks its head out, enabling the viewer to understand that behind the myth and the legend, he’s still flesh and blood like us all.
One of the more emotional scenes surfaces earlier in the film, when Ali is driving and hears about the death of his close friend Malcolm X. Smith slowly lets his reaction bleed through, and it’s so organic yet also very jarring. Up until this point, we’ve only witnessed the Ali everyone knows about from the documentaries, the headlines, and the history books. So, to see the hulking Champ breakdown like this feels quite rare — and it is. Mann exhibits dubious restraint in keeping these moments of tranquility to short gasps, but to his credit, Smith capitalizes on these subtleties and they stick with the character in much of his body language.
In fact, when he’s not shooting the shit with Howard Cosell (Jon Voight, in a fantastic performance) or mouthing off to the press with a volley of jokes or a brick of statements, Smith exudes an understated fear and a resilient anger that only the viewers can see; it’s in his eyes, his lips, or his jawline. Both Mann and Smith work off this mutual understanding with the audience that goes beyond dialogue and relies more on intimate shots, calculated angles, and even particular lighting. This is a style that Mann’s admittedly applied for years, though each sequential film post-Ali — with the exception of 2004’s incredibly vocal Collateral — has placed a stronger emphasis on this polarizing medium.
The problem with the film is the same conundrum that every biopic encounters: scope. There’s just not enough time for any feature-length film to encapsulate all of the struggles and details paramount to a luminary as magnificent and vast as Ali. But Ali isn’t at all interested in any part of the boxer’s life outside of what happened between 1964 and 1974, and to that effect, the film succeeds. Partly because the production isn’t just about its titular character, but the idea of perseverance and how a figure like Ali could rise above any challenge and inspire the entire world to do the same. By that accord, Mann knocked out audiences with two fists in the air.
(Originally published in our dissection and ranking of Michael Mann’s filmography. Read here.)