The tragedy has been reduced, over a quarter of a century later, to an emotionless statistic and one or two instantly recognizable images: Eleven Isræli Olympic athletes killed; the hooded Palestinian gunman prowling the hotel balcony; a team picture of the Isræli Olympic delegation. With so many new tragedies, triumphs, and historic events happening daily, such distillation and cataloguing of our history is the only way we humans manage to keep track of our past. It’s better than nothing. But sometimes, the world needs to re-examine some of these past events in greater depth, to click on an instantly recognizable icon and delve back into its details. That’s what makes films like the haunting and chilling “One Day in September” as necessary as it is powerful.
For the historically challenged, director Michæl MacDonald’s film looks back on the September day at the 1972 Munich Olympic Games when eight Palestinian terrorists from the “Black September” organization kidnapped eleven members of the Isræli Olympic Team. The gunmen killed two of their hostages early on in their “action.” The other nine died in the botched rescue attempt ordered by a German government more concerned with bad P.R. than the safety of the athletes and carried out by an un-trained and disorganized German police force.
This 2000 Academy Award Winner for Best Documentary combines interviews, news footage, ABC Sports video clips, computer diagrams and still photos to break down the event as it unfolded; a process that reveals the multitude of ironies and “what-ifs” that abounded. The touching interviews with the victims’ surviving teammates, spouses, and children put a human face on the tragedy, reminding the viewer that the loss of life represented by those cold statistics is still being felt today.
Other interviews with principle participants in the tragedy, such as German policemen, politicians, and the newsmen who covered the crisis, flesh out the details of what all went wrong on that awful day.
The major coup, however, is the interview with Jamal Al Gashey, the unrepentant, only surviving terrorist. His blow-by-blow account provides the viewer with a previously unknown perspective, not only into the crisis itself, but the mindset of those responsible for igniting it. (The film notes that two other terrorists survived the shoot-out and have since been gunned down by Isræli assassins. The disgusting revelation here of how these three thugs gained their freedom would have undoubtedly shattered Isræli-German relations had the details become known at the time.)
Michæl Douglas does a fine job narrating this film; supplementing the gaps between the interviews and news coverage. His voice fairly drips with sarcasm as he fleshes out the details of the ill-conceived and horribly executed “rescue.”
The most brutally shocking, and sure to be most controversial aspect of this film is MacDonald’s decision to include grisly photos of the dead victims. When you consider that one of the two helicopters in which the hostages were being held at the airport was blown up by a hand grenade and the other sprayed repeatedly with machine gun fire, these gruesome pictures are not pleasant to look at. They are, however, utterly necessary to drive home the point of what happened to these otherwise anonymous “eleven Isræli Olympic athletes killed.”
ABC Sports anchorman Jim McKay’s poignantly helpless summation, “They’re all gone,” rips at the heart to this day with its seeming incomprehension of the loss. The somber “One Day in September” echoes that pain just as the prejudice and hatreds that inspired the tragedy echo around the Middle East to this day.