PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Kevin Macdonald’s One Day in September recalls the events of one day—or rather, almost one day, twenty-one hours to be exact—during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. Many viewers will remember that on 5 September, a small group of Palestinian guerillas who called themselves Black September took eleven Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in the Olympic Village. It was an extraordinary incident in any number of ways, not least being the fact that no one knew how to respond. With multiple television cameras trained on the balcony from which the terrorists occasionally peered, the hostage-taking was worldwide, all-the-time news, long before CNN was a twinkle in Ted Turner’s eye.
The film conveys the urgency and anxiety of these events with an aggressive, non-traditional approach. Most documentaries have relied on the illusion of objectivity to pronounce their seriousness. Macdonald’s film never pretends to be objective, but instead presents a raft of subjective viewpoints and asks you to make your own judgments . This isn’t to say that the film does not judge events or people involved, but it does so with the kind of incredulity and assessment tools that you might bring to the data. One Day in September, in other words, takes cues from unconventional documentary models. These include, most obviously, the work of Errol Morris (like most of his films, Macdonald’s film uses a Philip Glass soundtrack, creating a kind of hypnotic, eerie compulsiveness—the rhythms are inescapable, yet not quite leading you to a clear emotional or intellectual destination), and also, even more rebelliously, techniques that are familiar from reality-tv, like melodramatic slow motion shots, a digital clock that “ticks” like the 60 Minutes stopwatch, diagrams and maps, gritty-seeming switches from video to film, and a grim narrative voice-over (provided by Michael Douglas, whose flat-nasal tone has never seemed so ideal).
The story is told through two basic narrative lines—one provided by Ankie Spitzer, the Dutch widow of one of the murdered Israelis, fencing coach Arnie Spitzer, the other by Amal Al Gashey, the sole surviving Palestinian guerilla (the others were either killed at the airport in Munich in 1972, or have died at the hands of the Israeli Mossad in the years since). These two people tell their stories—Ankie in full light, poised, articulate, and noble, Amal scruffy by comparison, in camouflaging cap, eyeglasses, and shadows, understandably in fear for his life. Already, the conventionally “sympathetic” figure is clear, but as the film goes on, it becomes more difficult to make this judgment without reconsidering it, if only because you come to understand Amal’s absolute faith in the rightness of his mission. The film doesn’t ask you to adopt this faith, but it does present it as a point of view that is comprehensible in the context of his 18-year-old ambitions and devotion to his homeland and persecuted fellows. The collision of his story with Ankie’s is inevitable, but the film builds tension by piling up comments from a variety of eyewitness and other sources—an athlete who escaped at the very beginning of the ordeal, the ex-head of the Israeli Secret Service, the Chief of Munich Police at the time, and others who recall what happened from various vantage points. These talking heads appear alongside 1972 ABC News footage (in which Jim McKay and Peter Jennings appear increasingly fatigued and distressed), such that the history unfolds with a pulsing, eerie immediacy.
The film pulls together previously undisclosed and well-known information, arguing that East Germans helped the terrorists gain access to the Village (where security was not nearly at the level of today’s Games, in large part because West Germany wanted the Games to showcase its peaceful sophistication, some thirty years after Hitler). The group demanded that 200 Palestinians be released from Israeli jails in exchange for the release of the athletes. But Black September came up against Prime Minister Golda Meir, who refused to negotiate in any way, and by the end of the day, they were reduced to demanding a plane to take them and their hostages out of Germany, a decision that, coupled with the consistently bad moves by German authorities, led to the deaths of all the hostages, 5 of the 8 guerillas, and one police officer. In looking back on events, the film locates all kinds of reasons why everything went so wrong, but the majority of the blame seems to land on German authorities who were unprepared and Olympics officials who were determined to maintain a veneer of good will and successful competition.
In the end, the film paints a picture of astonishing incompetence and arrogance, exhibited by the Olympic Committee (who only halted the Games when pressured by international outcry) and police (who attempted a SWAT-style invasion of the Olympic Village room where the hostages were held, only to call it off when they realized that their movements were visible on tv in that very room). The film shows athletes preparing for events and lounging in the sun, in apparent view of the Israeli quarters, while one commentator observes that their seeming nonchalance is “obscene.” By tracing these failures, One Day in September represents compelling links between sports (in general and specifically Olympian) and violence, as a basis for cultural exchange. Most effectively, the film shows that the Games are by definition political and commercial, despite and because of repeated claims to the contrary: As Mark Spitz and Olga Korbut became media stars in 1972, the film contends, the hostages and their captors were caught in a horrific and unforgettable real-time drama.