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'One Day in September'

'One Day in September' recalls the Olympic hostage crisis of 1972

Friday, February 02, 2001

By Ron Weiskind, Post-Gazette Movie Editor

The whole world was watching when Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage during the 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich.

'One Day In September'

Rating: R for some graphic violent images.

Narrator: Michael Douglas.

Director: Kevin MacDonald.

Critic's call:


Live TV pictures showed us shadowy figures poking their heads out of windows and carrying weapons. ABC sportscaster Jim McKay, in his finest hour, acted as our eyes and ears -- working around the clock, reporting developments as if he were an experienced news anchor, coaxing information from field reporters including a young Peter Jennings. In the end, exhausted, he encapsulated the tragedy by choking out the three simple words, "They're all gone."

But it wasn't that simple, and we didn't know everything yet. Last year's Oscar-winning documentary, "One Day in September," now at the Manor theater, reminds us of how much went wrong and why -- and contributes some additional shocking pieces of testimony.

Director Kevin McDonald tracked down the lone surviving terrorist, Jamal Al Gashey, who tells how he was recruited into the Black September group and recounts details of the operation. He says he wanted to fight Israel as an alternative to a hopeless lifetime as a refugee, and he remains proud of what he did in Munich, which he saw as a means of bringing the world's attention to the plight of the Palestinians.

But the film's sympathies rest with the hostages and their families, chiefly represented by Ankie Spitzer, widow of the Israeli fencing coach; Alex Springer, son of the team's weightlifting coach; and Schlomit Romano, daughter of one of the weightlifters.

(Full disclosure: Another of the murdered athletes, David Berger, was the son of my family's doctor in Cleveland. Berger had moved to Israel and had dual citizenship.)

The movie's anger, which rises to a boil (and is reflected in narrator Michael Douglas' voice as the film progresses), is aimed mostly at the German authorities, who bungled the attempt to rescue the athletes and capture the terrorists at the Munich airport. They didn't have enough snipers. Policemen disguised as a flight crew on a decoy aircraft lost their nerve and abandoned the plan. Authorities forgot to order armored units to the scene.

The film also roasts the International Olympic Committee for continuing the Games after the Israelis were taken hostage and, following a brief suspension, after their deaths at the airport. It concludes that the IOC and the Germans were more interested in rescuing the Games than the hostages.

At the outset, certainly, Germany hoped the Munich Olympics would help the country shed the stain of its Nazi past and the 1936 Berlin Olympics that Hitler used for political purposes. The movie offers clips from other sporting events reminding us that politics had intruded on athletic competitions on several occasions before 1972, as they have since.

The movie utilizes footage shot at the Olympic Village during the hostage incident, and the scene appears almost surreal at times -- as, indeed, it did then. I remember being more stunned than anything else as it unfolded. The anger came later, which may be why the movie's understandable sense of rage shooting to the surface seems so unsettling.

It may also be due to the appearance of even-handedness early in the film lent by the Al Gashey interview, although some critics have complained that the movie doesn't offer enough of the Palestinian point of view. Most viewers, I suspect, will not demand such impartiality.

Now, 29 years later, both sides still fight while negotiating for peace. "One Day in September" intensely reminds us why blood feuds take so long to perish from this Earth.

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