Depending on your perspective Muhammad Ali is either America's most famous conscientious objector or its most notorious draft dodger. The boxer still calls up a lot of fevered reaction from folks who lived through the Vietnam era. The new documentary I Am Ali (out now on Blu-ray, DVD and Digital HD) aims to present the boxer in a more intimate and personal light than previous films about the champ.
Who would've guessed that the former Cassius Clay would have so much in common with former President Nixon? Ali started recording his phone calls with his young daughters after he split from his wife and those recordings form the backbone of this film, made with the full cooperation of his family. Ali's own battle with Parkinson's disease precludes any contemporary interviews, so these conversations are the only new contribution he makes to the film.
The Ali story has been told over and over in some of the best documentary films, including the Oscar-winning When We Were Kings, The Trials of Muhammad Ali (which covers his struggles with the draft board) and the epic 6-hour Muhammad Ali - The Whole Story series. I Am Ali is a new approach to the story because it focuses so much more on the fighter's personal relationships than earlier films.
Hardcore Ali fans (and detractors) will be frustrated by the dutiful-yet-uninspired attempt to tell the story of his career and newcomers might be confused by the less-than-straightforward timeline of the film. The phone calls are fascinating, the movie that features them a bit less so. This is director Claire Lewin's first feature, but she worked with London-based Passion Pictures who are responsible for some of the finest documentaries of the last decade or so: the Oscar-winning One Day in September about the terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics, the Britpop movie Live Forever, the New York Cosmos soccer documentary Once in a Lifetime, Restrepo, The Tillman Story and the Oscar-winning Searching for Sugar Man. That's an incredible roster of films, but I Am Ali doesn't quite live up to that standard.