One Day in September (documentary)

“One Day in September” is the slickly told story of the 1972 Munich Olympics, in which Palestinian terrorists took hostage and eventually killed a dozen Israeli athletes.

Director Kevin Macdonald’s greatest achievement in the documentary is getting terrorist Jamal Al Gashey to speak on camera. Al Gashey’s two surviving cohorts were assassinated later, and he’s been in hiding ever since. This is his first interview on the subject, and his brutal honesty (he speaks proudly of the murders he committed) is astonishing.

This is a fascinating story, ripe for telling, and none of that is lost on Macdonald. Germany was eager to help people forget its past intolerance, both in world affairs and in the Olympics: 1936 Berlin was a shameful chapter in the history of sportsmanship, and the hope was that 1972 Munich would undo it. To that end, organizers kept police at a minimum and employed team of security guards instead. They wanted a friendly, peaceful Olympics.

It was not to be, however, as a Palestinian terrorist group took several Israeli Olympians hostage mid-way through the games. Their demand was that Arab revolutionary prisoners in Israel be set free; Israel refused this, fearing that to give in would open the door for future terrorism.

Germany, meanwhile, was panicked that such a crisis was occurring here and now, of all places and times. Hans-Dietrich Genscher, a German law-enforcement agent, even offered himself in exchange for the prisoners — anything to defuse the situation and avoid worsening Germany’s stigma as a land of brutality and terror.

The games continued during the crisis, which upset a number of people; they were eventually stopped. A potential rescue of the hostages from the hotel in which they were being held was ruined by East German TV cameras broadcasting the preparations into those very hotel rooms — where the terrorists could watch.

Everything culminated in a daring airport rescue that also was botched due to lack of communication and some poor planning. Most of the terrorists and all of the hostages were killed.

Macdonald interviews Ankie Spitzer, whose husband Andre was among the hostages, and quite a few others who were intimately involved in the crisis. It’s a thorough, well-balanced documentary.

There is some padding, though, as the film has a few montages of Olympic moments covered with era-appropriate music. What’s the point here? To remind us it’s 1972? To remind us it’s the Olympics? We were clear on both issues already, thanks.

B (; R, some bloody and violent images.)