Everything happens in the first ten minutes of Ali. All of cinema, as it now stands, could be represented in that medley—its editing is the history of editing, its images an overview of cinematography, its acting a primer on expressions, dialogue and characterization. It's cinema that's musical, dramatic, radiophonic and photographic, cinema as an impossible theater, a composition, a cut-up, a hallucination. Cinema as cinema. The whole world seems folded into those ten minutes, not merely history or biography. By the time Will Smith bursts, shouting rhyming insults, through the doors into the pre-match press conference, his entourage either ignoring or mouthing his words, the movie seems to have stretched itself out to infinity, consuming everything.
The greatest films made on biographical subjects—whether it's Utamaro and His Five Women, Ivan the Terrible, Montparnasse 19, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, Andrei Rublev, Van Gogh, St. Francis of Assissi or Ali—were made by people who weren't interested in biography, but in life. Not merely living, but in life itself, the very stuff of it. Not merely our experience, but what that experience consists of, those bits, places and pieces that overlap to form our lives. The world, not as we see it, but as it sees us. Not the way light shines into our faces, but the way we block out the light; not the way a room shapes a figure, but the way that figures shapes the space it occupies.
There isn't much use in cataloguing every moment. There are too many. Do I tell you about the police car, or Jamie Foxx's baldspot? The way Ron Silver tells Smith not to jump in one place, or Smith's face with the punching bag flickering in front of it? The pictures of horses behind Smith and Giancarlo Esposito's heads, or the man reading about Emmett Till on the bus?
The sequence, like the movie itself, isn't a puzzle. Nothing Michael Mann does ever is. Like Claire Denis's The Intruder, Ali’s absolutely straightforward, unencumbered by the usual shapes a scene, an image or an edit must pick between. The enigma of Mann, the mystery of his films, is in his total directness. I think, in relation to him, of the cigarette glowing amber in 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her, the camera movements of Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, the cuts in Countess from Hong Kong, the arguing faces of The Joy of Madness, or the poems Francis Ponge used to write about potatoes and soap. Of the way that the most everyday subjects and ordinary techniques create the greatest mystery. That's at the heart of Chaplin's editing, Ford's or Ozu's framing, Tashlin's color, Griffith's sound. Joyce was a great writer because no one could use the word "and" like him; Beckett's brilliance is partly his way with commas and periods; no one could play a scale like John Coltrane; nowhere do people sing like in Jacques Demy's movies because nowhere do people talk like in Jacques Demy's movies. No one can cut from a boxing gym to the interior of a bus a decade earlier like Michael Mann because no one can cut between the faces of two people in a conversation like Michael Mann. If greatness exists, then it's at the least sophisticated level.
The Columbia Pictures logo runs in reverse, the old Torch Lady appearing first in wide shot with the image then pulling in towards her torch, instead of the other way around. We hear a crowd, an emcee introducing Sam Cooke, then the band kicks in and, as Cooke, played by an impersonator, hams it up for his audience, there's the first tangible image —grainy video of Will Smith as Cassius Clay jogging down a street at night. It's a gray and murky night. He's the opposite of James Caan in Thief. Smith talks like he's just grown into his voice; Caan speaks like a man who's tired of hearing himself. Caan's a crisp figure against a field of of lights and color, a dour take on Gene Kelly in The Pirate; Smith's a smear on the image, often out-of-focus. But people are often blurs. They move faster than we'd like them too. Smith's wearing a sweatshirt, alone, just him and the streetlights. The greatest images in cinema aren't of ships ascending mountains or the undersides of Arctic ice, but of faces, hands, kisses, people sitting together and talking, a man running alone at night.