“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight,” Stephen Frears’s talky HBO dramatization of the boxing champ’s anti-draft legal battles, finds its liveliest moments in grainy snippets of archival news footage.
When a young Muhammad Ali talks, not even the U.S. Supreme Court stands a chance.
Starring Frank Langella as the Nixon-appointed Chief Justice Warren Burger, “Fight” chronicles the 1971 backroom debates and legal wranglings as the justices deliberate on Ali’s status as a conscientious objector to the Vietnam War.
Ali had joined the Nation of Islam, changed his name from Cassius Clay and declined on religious grounds to serve in the Armed Forces. Convicted for refusing to report for induction, Ali’s was stripped of his title and his boxing license was suspended.
Frears, working from a lackluster script by Shawn Slovo, turns Ali’s appeal into “12 Angry Men”-style drama, as the justices and their fresh-scrubbed clerks debate in chambers, taverns and open court.
The various justices are portrayed in broad strokes, including Danny Glover’s easygoing Thurgood Marshall, Ed Begley Jr.’s indecisive Harry Blackmun and Harris Yulin’s lecherous old William O. Douglas.
Only Christopher Plummer as the conservative Burger’s toady John Harlan is given room to shift and grow, though Frears and his screenwriter telegraph every development.
The young clerks are even less shaded, with a bland Benjamin Walker and a scowling Pablo Schreiber adding little depth to their roles as mouthpieces for either side of history.
“Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight” airs Saturday, Oct. 5 on HBO at 8 p.m. New York time. Rating: **1/2
Former “Will & Grace” show-boater Sean Hayes is the fall season’s third sitcom vet hoping for a comeback.
Mugging through a hackneyed set-up, Hayes plays the harried, single gay dad of a precocious teen (Samantha Isler).
Linda Lavin, reliable but coasting, costars as Sean’s busybody mom and a cartoonish Thomas Lennon plays a dictatorial boss with an unfortunate hairstyle and mustache.
“Oh Sean, don’t worry,” says the boss. “We all hate Hitler.”
“Sean Saves the World” airs Thursday, Oct. 3 on NBC at 9 p.m. New York time. Rating: *1/2
Daniel Radcliffe and Jon Hamm get the chance of their lives in the darkly comic British miniseries “A Young Doctor’s Notebook.” And it’s probably the only opportunity the actors will ever have to play the same character.
Adapted by Mark Chappell, Shaun Pye and Alan Connor from Mikhail Bulgakov’s short stories, the four half-hour “Notebook” episodes feature Radcliffe as a freshly minted physician working in a one-doctor hospital in a remote, snowy Russian province during the 1917 revolution.
Hamm plays his older, morphine-addicted self in 1934, recalling his early medical misadventures and being suspected of counter-revolutionary sympathies.
Making its American premiere on the Ovation channel a year after its British debut, “Notebook” takes an absurdist approach, with Radcliffe and Hamm appearing in scenes together, the younger doctor begging advice from his older, more laconic (and much taller) self.
“What else don’t I know I don’t know?” asks the barely competent Young Doctor, his jitters exacerbated by grotesque, bloody encounters with patients that seem as much Monty Python as Russian literature.
“Is she alive?” Radcliffe’s stunned doc asks when he sees an unconscious little girl whose legs have been mangled in some sort of accident.
“I’m sorry,” responds his older self. “She is.”
“A Young Doctor’s Notebook” airs Wednesday on Ovation at 10 p.m. New York time. Rating: ***
What the Stars Mean: ***** Fantastic **** Excellent *** Good ** So-So * Poor (No stars) Avoid
(Greg Evans is a critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
Muse highlights include Rich Jaroslovsky on tech and Jason Harper on cars.