At the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, a group of eight Palestinian revolutionaries took a group of Israeli athletes hostage, and the disastrous daylong siege played out before a global television audience. The event receives polished, affecting treatment in "One Day in September," the Oscar-winning documentary from helmer Kevin Macdonald and producer Arthur Cohn. Concerned more with the cataclysmic 24-hour period than the underlying moral and political issues, pic is never less than gripping as an account of what happened and what went terribly wrong. Indeed, there are astounding revelations here, many delivered by the sole surviving terrorist. Unspooling on the Stateside fest circuit after several European theatrical runs, the film airs Sept. 11 on HBO, and should spark interest and debate for years to come.

At the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, a group of eight Palestinian revolutionaries took a group of Israeli athletes hostage, and the disastrous daylong siege played out before a global television audience. The event receives polished, affecting treatment in “One Day in September,” the Oscar-winning documentary from helmer Kevin Macdonald and producer Arthur Cohn. Concerned more with the cataclysmic 24-hour period than the underlying moral and political issues, pic is never less than gripping as an account of what happened and what went terribly wrong. Indeed, there are astounding revelations here, many delivered by the sole surviving terrorist. Unspooling on the Stateside fest circuit after several European theatrical runs, the film airs Sept. 11 on HBO, and should spark interest and debate for years to come.

Macdonald structures the film as a suspense narrative, focusing on the horrifying, increasingly absurd sequence of events, as described by surviving participants and observers. Profound dilemmas are intrinsic to the material, but the filmmakers don’t delve too deep; there’s almost no commentary addressing the questions that hit so close to home, it’s perhaps impossible to assess this event clearly even now.

Instead, there are Michael Douglas’ grim, terse narration (no writer is credited) and the documakers’ dazzling, tightly wrought work. Images of the terrorists on the balcony of the Israelis’ apartment, faceless in their balaclavas, carry an almost archetypal terror, which the docu uses to powerful effect.

Period rock, especially Led Zeppelin’s scorching “Immigrant Song,” and compositions by Philip Glass heighten the sense of foreboding established by editor Justine Wright’s pulse-quickening cuts. There’s dramatic use of slow-mo in archival material and sped-up flourishes in the new location footage.

Among the talking heads are relatives of the doomed Olympians, who provide poignant reminiscences (particularly Ankie Spitzer, whose husband, the Israeli team’s fencing coach, had a sunny belief in diplomacy through sport), as well as European and Israeli journalists and the somewhat baffled German officials, some of whom could only stand by while the Bavarian government bungled the affair. (Laws forbade the German army from getting involved, possibly a function of postwar restrictions placed on Germany by the Allied victors, but the pic never spells this out.)

The docu’s biggest coup is the testimony of Jamil Al Gashey, the only member of the Palestinian contingent who’s still alive. He matter-of-factly chronicles his experience in Munich as part of Black September, an extremist wing of the Palestinian liberation movement. Al Gashey, who has been in hiding in Africa for a quarter-century, speaks of the hope and sense of identity he found, as a refugee, in the revolutionary movement.

The 18-year-old arrived in Germany fresh from special training in Libya and with no knowledge of his mission. Today he’s as proud of his role in the Munich massacre as he was in 1972 because, although it did not effect the release of the 236 political prisoners named in the group’s demands, it achieved the goal of bringing the Palestinian plight to the attention of millions.

The terrorists played into the spectacle aspect of the Games, and the media kept the spotlight burning. “One Day in September” relies largely on the voluminous TV footage of the crisis. In retrospect, it’s mind-boggling that the Germans didn’t clamp down on telejournalists, or at least get them out of the way. The very presence of news teams in the Olympic Village jeopardized rescue efforts, and their blind pursuit of the story (i.e., pictures) smacks not of bravery but ghoulishness.

An East German station broadcast live coverage of an attempted attack on the compound, so that anyone with a TV — including the terrorists — could watch the preparatory maneuvers.

The Munich Games took place six miles from Dachau, and pic makes clear that the Germans, acutely self-conscious about their recent history, looked to the XX Olympiad as an antidote to the 1936 Berlin Games, infamous for Hitler’s florid display of prowess and might. The civic-pride promo reel that opens the docu revels in a feelin’-groovy mood; security was deliberately kept to a minimum. The eight members of Black September gained access to the Olympic Village by simply hopping over the fence, with some assistance from a group of drunken U.S. athletes returning to their digs in the middle of the night.

But beyond its determination to strike a new, nonmilitaristic pose, Germany was sorely lacking in martial organization and know-how, as events would soon prove. With a fatal mix of naivete and pride, Germans turned down offers of strategic help from Israel and committed one tragic blunder after another.

Still taut as a wire, Zvi Zamir, at the time head of Israel’s intelligence agency, the Mossad, bitterly maintains that the No. 1 priority for officials was the resumption of the Olympics, not the rescue of the Israeli athletes. The Intl. Olympic Committee’s reluctance to halt the Games, with two Israelis dead and nine others held captive, is, as it was then, incredible.

An Israeli runner complains today that a life-or-death situation was being turned into a “show.” One could argue that Macdonald’s film does more of the same, with its accent decidedly on action rather than ramifications. But as a real-life action-thriller, it’s striking, memorable and thought-provoking.

Though “One Day in September” may leave deeper, historical matters unaddressed, it lays some potent material on the table. The questions at the heart of this drama — regarding justice for displaced peoples, the single-mindedness of the revolutionary and how to respond to terrorist acts — will not easily be resolved.

One Day in September

Production

An HBO presentation of a Passion Pictures/Arthur Cohn production. Produced by Cohn, John Battsek. Executive producer, Lillian Birnbaum. Directed by Kevin Macdonald.

Crew

Camera, Alwin Kuchler, Neve Cunningham; special stills photographer, Raymond Depardon; editor, Justine Wright; music, Alex Heffes; additional score, Craig Armstrong; music supervisor, Liz Gallacher; sound, Wilm Brucker, Amir Boverman; computer animation, Ravi Swami, Peter Richardson; associate producer, Andrew Ruhemann. Reviewed on videocassette, Los Angeles, Sept. 1, 2000. (In Telluride, Vancouver film festivals.) Running time: 92 MIN.

Cast

Narrator: Michael Douglas
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