I always knew Muhammad Ali for being one of America’s most towering sports figures, and for being one of the most towering sports figures ever in public life, period. But until the video below, I confess I hadn’t been aware of one of the most important things he ever did to earn that status – traveling to Iraq in 1990 and negotiating with Saddam Hussein the release of 15 U.S. citizens in Iraq Hussein was keeping in the country as “guests,” but actually hostages who were placed in strategic locations to try to ward off American attacks following Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, and shortly before Gulf War, Part I went down. (Give me a break- I was three years old at the time.)
Anyway, it was decided that someone with a good chance of getting these American “guests” freed was Muhammad Ali, thanks to his aforementioned standing in the world – and his status as one of the world’s most prominent Muslims. So Ali flew to Iraq on a peacekeeping mission… and now, 22-plus years later, director Amani Martin is telling the story with a John-Legend-narrated short film, released under the 30 for 30 umbrella. It debuted today on Grantland. Here it is:
For what it’s worth, my thoughts on the film: it’s a fascinating story and that makes it worth watching, but I never felt like the full gravity of the moment, the full tension of what was at stake, came through. Of course it’s heart-tugging when a guy gets choked up at the thought of never seing his wife again, and it’s mesmerizing seeing Ali, already dealing with the effects of Parkinson’s, still own every room he enters. But the whole thing felt anticlimactic: the obstacles in the way (media opposition to Ali’s trip, Ali running out of medication) felt inconsequential, and what should have been the climax of the film – Ali successfully rescuing the hostages – came across as a foregone conclusion, almost mundane.
But maybe that’s the point, in a way – such was the import of Ali that he freed these people with relative ease, the way he always commanded a room. Ali’s always a guy worth talking about, so whatever my quibbles were with how the story was told, I’m glad it was told – and I’m glad that, amidst the deserved criticism for pouring resources into stuff like this, ESPN hasn’t forgotten its worthier projects.