Using deceptively simple editing strategies to combine footage shot in the 70s with interviews staged in the 90s, Leon Gast and Taylor Hackford craft a suspenseful unfolding of the events that culminated in the world-championship heavyweight boxing match between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman in Zaire in 1974. The movie sets the contrasting personalities of the boxers against an eleborate musical, political, and social backdrop. James Brown and B.B. King were in Kinshasa to enhance the event; Norman Mailer and George Plimpton were there to cover it. In a 1995 interview Mailer recalls an atrocity allegedly perpetrated by Zaire's president, Mobutu Sese Seko, shortly before the fight: Mailer introduces the story as a legend, then says it "may even be true." This equivocation actually gives credence to the movie's historicizing of the fight and its political ramifications--When We Were Kings is as much about what happened in Zaire in September and October of 1974 as about what the press conveyed to the rest of the world at the time. Pointed commentary--especially by Plimpton--over footage of the contenders hashing it out makes watching the sport meaningful even for the naive viewer. In spots this movie becomes an earnest paean to Ali, but this doesn't detract from the beautifully paced accumulation of data and emotion. Pipers Alley. --Lisa Alspector
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): film still.