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Biopic trio packs emotional punch

While flawed, they'll likely grab Oscar attention

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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.

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