The current crisis in the Middle East, with its painful controversy regarding the sovereignty over Temple Mount, makes the timing for the documentary One Day in September (Best Documentary Oscar: 1999) perfect. The film presents the historical events of the 1972 Munich Olympics, when Palestinian terrorists took Israeli athletes hostage and interrupted the Games. The filmmakers use actual footage taken at the time, interviews with German officials and children of the victims, clips from television news reports, and interviews with the only surviving terrorist who participated in the attack, Jamal Al Gashey.
The film starts off on a personal note: Ankie Spitzer, a widow of one of the Israeli athletes kept as a hostage, recalls their happy marriage and anticipation of coming to the Olympic games. Giving the tragedy a human face underlines the message of the film: At the core of every political game, human life and death are nothing more than a by-product of political cruelty. Objectively, it gives a succinct summary of why the 1972 Olympics, besides being as political as Olympic Games always are, were so particularly important to both Germans and Israelis. Subjectively, and understandably so, the film is pro-Israeli: If members of Israeli team are presented as exemplary citizens -- young, ambitions, with families and babies -- Palestinians are shown receiving training in violence, hiding as Zionist refugees in Lebanon and Libya, carrying out their terrorist acts with anonymous brutality (as they don't even know the target of their attack until very late). Thus, in addition and perhaps without realizing it, the film exemplifies why cinema is such a powerful and dangerous medium; One Day in September is an adroitly constructed yet highly manipulative film.
Once the film gets to its point by recreating the actual events that took place on the day of the attack, September 5, 1972, it tries to create suspense by applying slow motion shots and stirring music score punctuated with pounding sounds of a heart beat. This technique is powerful and gripping, but the real achievement of the film is in its detailed reconstruction of the events that led to the atrocity. It is almost impossible to believe how it was all allowed to happen -- in a small apartment in the Olympic Village nine athletes were held hostage, one was killed and another was left to bleed to death, but the festival of sport continued as if nothing happened. Debunking the idea of the Olympic Games as a festive celebration in peace and harmony, the filmmakers describe step-by-step how, in the middle of public and media attention, German officials absolved themselves from the terrorist attack and resumed the competition. The film then details exactly how the police, lacking an anti-terrorist squad, proper security, and turning down help from the Israelis, ignominiously failed to save hostages by attempting to carry out an ill-conceived maneuver. The result of this drama is devastating and ghastly.
Despite the fact that One Day in September might upset a lot of people for being manipulative and one-sided, this historical account is shocking, jarring, and unequivocally worth seeing.
One long day.