In 2001, when it was announced that Will Smith would be playing Muhammad Ali in a film directed by Michael Mann, this seemed like perfect casting. If anybody could portray Ali, it was the equally charismatic Smith, then at the peak of his career. Unfortunately, this was a case of the right actor in the wrong movie, at the wrong time. The film was released in late 2001, after 9/11, and after American troops first rolled into Afghanistan. As John Podhoretz wrotein January of 2002, Mann wasn’t interested in Ali the superstar boxer who was made for television, he was interested in Ali’s radical politics during the Vietnam War, and the timing and the lugubrious, inert feel of what should have an exercise in kinetic filmmaking sunk the movie at the box office:
It’s conceivable that the movie has failed because it’s a stiff. But moviegoers wouldn’t have known that in the first weekend of its release, and with Will Smith’s name above the title, it should have made at least $30 million. It made half that. Why?
Simple. Ali is a mostly worshipful movie about an American icon who converted to Islam — or rather, Elijah Muhammad’s bizarre riff on Islam — and then proceeded to dodge the draft while making speeches about how he had no argument with the people who were killing tens of thousands of young Americans in Southeast Asia.
You can perhaps see how uncomfortable this story would make American audiences these days. In 1975, Ali himself starred in a fictionalized version of his own life called The Greatest. Ali was charming and funny in The Greatest in a warts-and-all portrait that showed him being a selfish jerk with at least one of his wives. What The Greatest did not do was turn Ali into a political icon.
A wise move. As a political icon, Muhammad Ali is as much of a dud as the movie about him.
A movie that dwelled on the comic aspects of his life — that would have used Will Smith’s own natural energy and likability to its utmost — might have been a triumph. But such a movie wouldn’t have satisfied Michael Mann’s hunger to Be Important.
Memo to Hollywood: Draft-dodging Muslims are out. A movie with a Muslim war hero — now that might make a fortune.
Of course, Hollywood would spend the next seven years doing its damnedest to destroy America’s morale in the wake of 9/11. This was partly because they hated Dubya, and as Daniel Henninger has written, for many on the left, their most intense day during that period wasn’t 9/11, but a year earlier, when Al Gore lost the recall election to GWB, partly because of the nostalgic left wanting to relive the glory days of their protests against LBJ, Nixon, and fighting communism in Vietnam.
Which brings us to this infamous moment by Robert Redford, while promoting The Company You Keep, his new film embracing the Weather Underground:
As Scott Whitlock of Newsbusters summarizes:
George Stephanopoulos was so enthusiastic towards Robert Redford and his sympathetic new film about an ex-1960s radical that the actor enthused, “You ought to get on the marketing team!” The aging actor/director appeared on Tuesday’s Good Morning America and endorsed the violent actions of protest groups. Reminiscing on his own past, the liberal Hollywood star recounted, “When I was younger, I was very much aware of the movement. I was more than sympathetic, I was probably empathetic because I believed it was time for a change.”
After Stephanopoulos wondered, “Even when you read about bombings,” Redford responded, “All of it. I knew that it was extreme and I guess movements have to be extreme to some degree.
It’s pretty rare for someone to drop the mask and admit that he’s cool with terrorist bombings; at Front Page, Bosch Fawstin explores “Robert Redford’s Terrorist Heroes:”
Yeah. Those people probably wouldn’t have been doing that if our own government hadn’t been shipping tens of thousands of young Americans halfway around the world to kill their young men inside the borders of their own country.
I admire Ali for taking a straightforward stance and acting in accordance with his convictions. He didn’t dodge anything. He didn’t flee the country. He didn’t work legal angles. He didn’t get a deferment as a minister of religion, and go off to spend a few years in Paris converting the heathen French. He publicly stated his reasons for objecting, showed up at the designated time to be inducted, and refused to be—knowing full well that he would be arrested.
I think Redford hit his head on a rock, when he jumped off that cliff with Paul Newman, on Butch and Sundance.