One Day in September
Directed by Kevin MacDonald
Review by Shawn Drury <firstname.lastname@example.org>
In this Olympic year, it is easy to forget that the Games have been, are, and always will be a political event more than anything else. Examples date back to the Olympics held in Nazi Germany in 1936, through the display of Black Power by American sprinters at Mexico City in 1968, and on to the respective boycotts by the United States in 1980 and by the then-Soviet Union in 1984. The aforementioned, while memorable, are examples of political protest and using the massive public forum that are the Summer Olympics to, essentially, make a point.
However, at the 1972 Summer Olympics held in Munich, West Germany, non-violent protest was superceded by the most abrupt and tragic act of violence to ever visit an international sporting event. In 1972, any lingering notion of the Olympics as a display of sport, and sport only was put to rest forever.
In the early-morning hours of September 5, 1972, the compound housing the Israeli Olympic team was overrun by eight Palestinian terrorists. Eleven hostages were taken and the terrorists immediately demanded that 200 Palestinians be released from Israeli jails in exchange for the release of the athletes. Israel's Prime Minister Golda Meir refused to cave-in to any demands. Television viewers witnessed armed, hooded gunmen outside the living quarters of defenseless, apolitical athletes. A horrifying spectacle narrated by the subdued voice of ABC Sports announcer Jim Mckay.
Within twenty-four hours the athletes and terrorists -- from the self-anointed Black September movement -- were en route to a nearby airport, presumably to fly them out of West Germany. Upon arrival at the airport, a rescue team engaged the terrorists and the resulting shootout left all of the Israeli athletes, five of the eight terrorists and one policeman dead.
Director Kevin MacDonald and producer Arthur Cohn in the Academy Award-winning documentary, One Day in September, capture these events. Cohn previously produced Barbara Koppel's Academy Award-winning documentary American Dream about a bitter strike at a Hormel meat-packing plant.
One Day in September uses a combination of interviews, archival and never-before-seen footage to revisit the tragedy. The filmmakers spent over two years conducting research and their findings are troubling to say the least. For those who watched the events as they happened, this film can only confirm your worst fears and for those too young to remember the 1972 Summer Olympics the film is a case-study in the rise of modern terrorism.
Strong evidence suggests that East German authorities -- Communists -- allowed the terrorists to enter the Olympic Village, which was under heavy security. Further, it is believed that the East Germans also helped the Black September movement obtain surveillance equipment to monitor the comings and going not only of the Israelis but also of the rescue efforts being made on behalf of the hostages once they were taken. Then there were the officials of the Olympics, led by the controversial Avery Brundage. The officials determined that the situation could best be resolved away from the Olympic Village and they determined the best place for negotiations to take place -- and ultimately the rescue attempt -- was the airport. So, the athletes and their captors were taken by helicopter to the airport. On the surface, this might not seem to have been a bad decision. However, the decision, according to the filmmakers, was not made in the best interest of the hostages. One Day in September implies it was made so the games could continue as if the crisis were but a minor incident, like inclement weather. The games did in fact resume the next day.
While the East Germans may have been complicit in the taking of the hostages, the response of the West German authorities was inept at best. The film suggests that West German sharpshooters were ordered to occupy and then overrun the airplane before takeoff. But, no West German police officers were willing to risk hiding on the plane. In addition, the authorities placed only five snipers (without the benefit of communication) at the airport to launch the rescue mission, assuming there were less than eight terrorists. They proved to be grotesquely undermanned and all of the snipers were killed while a tank (ordered too late) waded through traffic on a road that had not cleared.
The shootout at the airport left three survivors, all of who were terrorists. Two of the terrorists were hunted down by the Mossad (the Israeli CIA) and killed.
The only survivor is Jamil Al Gashey, who is in hiding in Africa. Al Gashey agreed to appear in the film under the provision that his facial features not be revealed. And so it is Al Gashey who provides the most riveting testimony -- as a witness and a willing participant in a massacre.
One Day in September is a remarkable historical document and a sad commentary on the absence of sport at what is clearly defined to be an athletic competition.
The movie does not have a major distributor but perhaps that will change with its Academy Award victory. At best, the film will be in limited release so your best bet may be to watch it when it is released on video.
For more information, go to the Internet Movie Database:
One Day in September (1999)
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