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One Day in September (R)
Sony Pictures Classics
Official Site

Director: Kevin Macdonald

Producers: John Battsek and Arthur Cohn

Narrated By: Michael Douglas

Cast: Ankie Spitzer, Jamal Al Gashey, Gerald Seymour, Alex Springer, Gad Zabari, Ulrich K Wegener, Hans-Dietrich Genscher

Rating: out of 5

Kevin Macdonald’s stunning documentary ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER, which won an Academy Award™ earlier this year but is only now getting a national release, comes at an opportune moment, given the Israeli-Palestinian conflict still raging throughout the streets of Jerusalem. The story of the 1972 Olympic games, and the 11 Jewish athletes who died at the hands of Palestinian terrorists during those games, provides not only a much-needed history lesson on the unbridled and irrational anti-Semitism that continues to plague the Jewish people, but a telling reminder of the power of television to, at its best, capture history in the making and, in the process, seize and unite the world’s attention.

In an attempt to prove it had changed since Munich’s 1932 "Nazi" Olympics (not to mention the Holocaust), the 1972 games—billed as the "Olympics of Peace and Joy"—were designed to recast Germany as a country that had learned the error of its ways. And for the first 10 days, it worked, as fun, sun, and thrilling competition helped erase the memory of the propaganda-infested ’32 games.

Yet all was not right at the games, for just underneath this peaceful veneer lurked more sinister forces—a band of eight Palestinian terrorists operating under the banner "Black September," whose plan was to hold the Jewish athletic squad hostage in exchange for the release of 236 Palestinian POWs in Israel and elsewhere. In the wee morning hours of September 5, they overtook the athletes’ barracks and, after killing two of the hostages, entered into a nationally-televised stalemate with German officials, who were less than prepared for such a frightening turn of events.

The 11 Jewish athletes had been hailed as heroic ambassadors of peace and reconciliation throughout the games, symbols of Israel’s courage and strength in the face of a nation which, only 30 years earlier, had sought their total annihilation. Macdonald wisely starts his story with these brave men and, in particular, Israeli fencing coach Andre Spitzer, a man willing to introduce himself to the Lebanese fencing team in a gesture of mutual admiration and camaraderie. Through interviews conducted with Spitzer’s wife, Ankie, Macdonald lays the groundwork for his suspenseful historical yarn, that of young idealistic men (some married, some only 18 years old) whose plans to make history took an abrupt and tragic turn.

In what can only be described as a coup of the highest order, Macdonald intercuts Spitzer’s story with that of Jamal Al Gasey, the last living member of "Black September," who appears disguised and is, we are told, living somewhere in Africa. The film takes its time deliberately paralleling Spitzer's and Al Gasey’s seemingly unrelated personal histories, as each slowly embarks on a fateful trajectory that would forever scar that tragic summer. Perhaps even more shocking than Al Gasey’s detailed recollections of the siege, however, was the Olympians’ response—the games, for much of the day, continued on schedule, and we witness athletes sunbathing and playing Ping-Pong less than a block away from the terrorist standoff, seemingly indifferent to the fact that the lives of their comrades hung in the balance.

As is evident from the testimony of Al Gasey—who comes across as a proud, boastful extremist whose ideological fanaticism overwhelms his sense of reality—the terrorists who seized the Israeli athletic compound were inept zealots held together largely by their cunning negotiator, a shadowy figure named Isa who acted as liaison between the Palestinians and police officials. Yet it was the response by Munich’s police force that sealed the hostages’ fate. Ill-prepared for such an event and lacking a counter-terrorist team to call upon, the Germans bumbled their way through the day without a plan or clear thought in their heads. That their incompetence wound up contributing to, rather than preventing, the eventual outcome is, perhaps, the most horrific chapter in this saga.

Benefiting immensely from the outstanding wealth of documentary footage taken during this nightmare (including reports from Peter Jennings and, in a surreal turn of events, Howard Cosell), Macdonald adroitly couches such footage within a rollicking framework replete with a ‘70s soundtrack (featuring Led Zeppelin, the Doors, and Deep Purple), split screens and television news reports. Even more effective in maintaining the dramatic momentum, however, is Macdonald’s decision to include a computer-animated recreation of the standoff’s final confrontation, staged at a nearby airport, which allows us to fully comprehend the gross miscalculations authorities made in planning this "resolution."

The finale, which not only shows Palestinians welcoming home the terrorists as heroes but the Germans weaseling their way out of the tragedy’s aftermath, is as shocking and revelatory as they come. This is history made alive without need for maudlin audience manipulation or melodramatic bluster, and stands as a thrilling tribute to those 11 athletes who died for no reason other than their ethnicity.

—Nicholas Schager

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