Biopic trio packs emotional punch

While flawed, they'll likely grab Oscar attention

The year is closing with a strong crop of biographical films - or biopics, as they're known in the trade.

Each is more a pic than a bio, twisting the facts of a fascinating life into a viewer-friendly narrative arc. But all have enough historical and emotional interest to lure potentially large audiences.

Ali takes a hard-hitting look at fast-talking prizefighter Muhammad Ali, a key cultural figure of the 1960s and '70s.

He began his career as Cassius Marcellus Clay, a talented athlete with a gift for gab. He might have had an uncontroversial career if he'd kept the public's eye on his flying fists and fancy footwork. But his personality included a weakness - or genius? - for speaking his mind on hotly debated issues.

Before long, he struck up an edgy relationship with the Black Muslim movement, taking a new name bestowed on him by Nation of Islam leader Elijah Muhammad and making radical comments on civil-rights issues. His reign as heavyweight champion was disrupted when he refused induction into the United States Army, citing religious principles and an angry conviction that white Americans posed more danger to black people than Asian communists ever could.

He won more battles than he lost, athletically and politically, and even his adversaries respected his courage in the ring and everywhere else. Although age and illness eventually dimmed his fame, it's hard to think of a more promising subject for wide-screen treatment.

It's also hard to think of a more appropriate director for the project than Michael Mann, whose previous docudrama on culturally charged issues - "The Insider," about a heroic whistle-blower in the tobacco industry - was smart and gripping.

Mann gives "Ali" the full Hollywood treatment, casting Will Smith in the title role and vividly re-creating the story's real-life settings and characters. Smith lacks the champ's commanding physical presence, but his vocal impersonation is uncannily right. Ditto for Jon Voight's take on Howard Cosell, the white sportscaster who became Ali's verbal sparring partner and confidante.

Gregory Allen Howard's screenplay hits many of the high points in Ali's life, from his early boxing triumphs to his friendships with two other African-American icons, Malcolm X and Don King, and Ali's comeback fight in Zaire that capped his career.

What keeps the movie from championship status is a sense that the filmmakers see Ali's social and political contributions as extra added attractions, ultimately less important than his greatness in the ring.

This suspicion is confirmed when Mann devotes the entire climax of the movie to a tricked-up reenactment of the Rumble in the Jungle match. That's a legitimate choice, but it reduces what could have been a thrilling sociopolitical journey to just another boxing picture. And the Martin Scorsese classic "Raging Bull" still holds the title in that arena.

Swinging from the pugilistic to the academic, A Beautiful Mind focuses on John Forbes Nash Jr., a Princeton University economist who started his career with a theoretical breakthrough that radically changed his intellectual field, then fell prey to severe psychological problems.

Russell Crowe is a sensational actor who can apparently do anything he sets his own beautiful mind to - he's one reason why "The Insider" was so intense - and he brilliantly portrays Nash from college days to retirement age. Kudos also go to screenwriter Akiva Goldsman, who brings out connections between Nash's increasingly bizarre delusions and the political paranoia of the post-World War II years.

To say more than this would give away the story's secrets, so I'll just say that director Ron Howard takes more narrative risks than usual in this picture, springing a mid-movie surprise that makes "The Sixth Sense" seem almost predictable.

As in "Ali," however, the screenplay is more interested in the melodrama of its hero's life than in the substance of his far-reaching accomplishments.

You won't learn much about economics here, and you won't get much insight into mental illness either, beyond a simplistic assumption that chronic hallucinations are no match for old-fashioned will power. While it's a splendidly acted film, "A Beautiful Mind" is also a wasted opportunity.

The equally well-acted Iris is also a bit short on intellectual content, even though its main characters are acclaimed novelist Iris Murdoch and author John Bayley, her husband. They're played by different performers at different phases in their lives: Kate Winslet and Judi Dench as Murdoch, and Hugh Bonneville and the great Jim Broadbent as Bayley.

Instead of taking a chronological approach, director Richard Eyre alternates between scenes of their early and late experiences, putting the spotlight mainly on Murdoch - from her youthful years as a writer, when she flirted with everyone in sight and decided to marry Bayley, to her confrontation with declining mental and physical powers.

Look for all three of these biopics to surface in the coming Oscar races.

'Ali,' rated R, contains violence and vulgarity. 'A Beautiful Mind,' rated PG-13, contains sexual dialogue and violence. 'Iris,' rated R, contains sex and scenes of illness.

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