Gast doesn't bother to set scenes or mark out timelines, and his impressionistic approach has its drawbacks. The performances, B.B. King doing "Sweet Sixteen" or James Brown on "Gonna Have a Funky Good Time," are there only for flavor or thematic effect. You don't learn, for example, whether the concert goes on as planned despite the fight delay caused by Foreman's sparring accident. One reason that Mailer registers so strongly -- he's virtually the film's third lead -- is that he's such a terrific organizer and interpreter of facts. He fills us in on the strong-arm rule of the dictator Mobutu, who, determined to prove Zaire safe, crammed the dungeons beneath the stadium with criminals weeks before the fight, and (it is said) arbitrarily executed a tenth of them. And Mailer explains the nuances of Ali's training regimen, the way Ali educated his body to "read" punches -- "these messages of punishment" -- and absorb them ever more rapidly. During the match itself, it's a gratifying display of journalistic prowess to hear Mailer describe the signs of fear and renewed determination in Ali's face, and then see them for ourselves. Mailer's and Plimpton's slack-jawed astonishment heightens our own when Ali comes out slugging though the smart money said he'd dance all night. The ex-champ regains his crown by piling on a dozen perilous right-hand leads, then lying back on the ropes (in the soon-to-be-famous "rope-a-dope" technique), goading Foreman into punching himself out before applying his own knockout punches. "The sweet science" of boxing doesn't get sweeter than this.
When We Were Kings is at its most exciting when Gast conjures up mysterious presences in the shadow of the ring, especially when he expands on the story of a soothsayer prophesying that Foreman would be visited by a woman with trembling hands -- a succubus -- who would drain the champ of his power. To insinuate that kind of otherworldly entity, Gast repeatedly imposes concert portraits of Miriam Makeba at her most possessed: when Foreman gets bloodied during training, when George Plimpton tells the story of the succubus, and at the end of the fight, when the prophecy seems to have come true. By then, you feel that a victory as marvelous as Ali's must have drawn on unseen forces. Gast's movie does equal justice to the pragmatism and mysticism of Ali's boxing career. In When We Were Kings it's a formidable one-two combination.