One Day in September
Director: Kevin Macdonald. Documentary. Profile of the terrorist hijacking of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, including the capture and murder of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. Narrated by Michael Douglas.

Based on his two most celebrated efforts, I must admit that Kevin Macdonald's relation to documentary form, and his particular trust and grasp of the subjects of his films, continues to elude me. Like his subsequent Touching the Void, which trumps up and finally muddies a surefire narrative with odd interview choices, imprecise editing, and gratuitous visual embellishments, his Oscar-winning One Day in September feels split in its allegiances, further and further testing the viewer's confidence until the film almost collapses at the end. The nature, footage, and pause-giving aftershocks of Macdonald's chosen subject—the hijacked 1972 Olympic Games in Munich, Germany, ending in the violent deaths of 11 Israeli athletes and coaches—make their own implicit and potent case for the movie's value, and it's true that Macdonald has excavated some crucial and fascinating information, including an extended interview with one of the terrorists. But as though unaware of the informative, sobering, and righteously outraged movie that his right hand is busily assembling, his left (all apologies to lefties) keeps laying down cheap music tracks, molding a global crisis into a real-time thriller, and rather stupidly if not suspiciously abandoning all of the inroads that lead to the heart of the matter. I wonder if it's possible or even wise to reject One Day in September outright, but my admiration for it and my appreciation for having watched it are enormously tempered by a rising swell of disdain for the director, who must be quite a silver-tongue to collect this rich and diverse gallery of commentators but who fails to find the moment to drop the rhetoric and really wrestle with the stakes of what he's dropped himself into.

However unexpected she may be as a place to start the film, it is illuminating and right that Ankie Spitzer, a widow of one of the murdered athletes, is one of Macdonald's interview subjects, her recollections bringing a specific countenance to the expected face of loss. Married to Spitzer for just over a year, she speaks with a distinctive combination of lucidity and sorrow, and though only three other relations of the hostages appear in the movie—the wife of a slain wrestler, in archive footage, and the daughters of this man and of Spitzer, in the present day—Ankie's memory and perspective are sounded with the clarity of a bell, illuminating how the grief of the helpless, onlooking loved one is both heartbroken and practical, as she remembers the series of phone calls she both made and received through the long day of September 5, 1972, and as she evokes in such telling, personal detail how inscrutable the day's events were to anyone who wasn't there.

The real heft of the picture, though, lies in uncovering how equally inscrutable were both the crisis and its response, even to the ground crews, police officers, negotiators, and other figures who were so blindly and quickly implicated in the event as it unfolded. Even Jamal Al Gashey, the Black September operative who recalls his participation in low light and under heavy, disguising layers of clothing, describes how hectic the day felt even from inside the athletes' complex. Given no orders to kill, he says, his Black September comrades were assigned to hold and, if necessary, deport their hostages long enough to extract a 200-member list of Palestinian activists from their prison cells. Thus, as Jamal describes the early, unplanned shooting of the wrestling coach who tried to overpower the eight-man hit squad, the whole terrible incident emerges as one that had already spun out of control before the world, even the immediate community, knew it was happening.

Unfortunately, Macdonald isn't the kind of interviewer who gets nearly close enough to Jamal's story to press him on the point of whether the brutal violence was really so circumstantial, much less on the finer points of Black September's backup plan if their terms weren't met, much less on how long the terror cell had planned this event. To keep in mind fair concessions to the film, the entire context of Palestinian action, stretching from Black September's deplorable extremism to the political history motivating their plot, ranks nowhere on the film's agenda, and Jamal's own discourse, as truncated and partial as it is destined to be, is hardly where the film can be asked to press its case with the full energy we might desire. One Day in September, as early as its title, is clear in stipulating that its aims have little to do with the wider framework of Israeli-Palestinian strife, and nothing to do with complicating the dramatic canvas from the sheer, revolting victimhood of the Israelis and the merciless aggression of their captors. This strikes me as eminently reasonable, regardless of how frustrating and limiting it is to alight on any node of history without a full grasp of where, historically speaking, the episode came from, what it reflected, where it led. Indeed, the Brazilian Bus 174, a strong and much more recent film about another hostage crisis, nonetheless showed that padding a film with dollops of generalized context can hamper the exploration of an incident as much as they help to reveal it. Memory and understanding have to start somewhere, and besides, is there really any doubting that, on that one day in September, Israelis suffered as Palestianians attacked?

Macdonald does interpolate some late footage where Jamal Al Gashey admits to his continued pride in his complicity, since the event called unprecedented and, in his view, tide-turning attention to the crisis of his nationless state. To even hear this contrarian view expressed, much less from the mouth of a perpetrator, in fact makes the film more subtly bold in characterizing Arab/Israeli antagonism than it is in delving into the more immediate issues of how the crisis was made possible, how the Germans conducted and in many ways bungled their rescue efforts, and what kinds of direct questions, not about the Middle East but about terrorism and its circulatory system, the whole event injected into world consciousness. Here, the film falls down repeatedly. Twice, the name "East Germany" emerges in stomach-turning contexts, first when soothing, antiseptic narrator Michael Douglas tells us that East Germans familiar with the Olympic village had helped the terrorists plot their approach to the Israeli apartments, and second when an already shaky-looking mission to penetrate the complex and seize the hostages by firepower and force is thwarted by East German camera crews, who film these preparations, air them live, and—unwittingly or not, the film is tremulously unclear—alert the Black September squad to every single move as it's made.

Macdonald, in this odd pattern of bashfulness on hugely germane matters, appears to trade on "East Germany," an outmoded and safely vilifiable name, to stand in for a depth and breadth of collusion that the film refuses adequately to research or explore. No promontory, no clarity of vision is permitted beyond that opaque, sour-tasting stopgap of "East Germany," even though the facts of the case as we can best divine them get much more upsetting from there. On the West German side of the equation, we learn that the country's desperate hope to portray itself through the Games as demilitarized, unautocratic, giving and deserving of trust, and purged of fascist will had led the government to slash ground security and safety provisions. We also hear several raconteurs, in addition to Douglas, marveling at how a state so notorious for coordinated might and clockwork systems could be so untrained, so under-resourced, and so frankly haphazard not just in anti-terror equipments but in basic police procedures, like honing a sniper squad, allowing remote communications between deputies, even just staying the hell out of sight from the culprits when it most matters to do so. German repulsions of outside aid, including a proposal from the sadly experienced Israelis themselves, are hastily and almost laughingly glossed over. The non-involvement of the German military is just as summarily and dismissed in Douglas' narration, an effect, he tells us, of "complicated border laws." The fatally delayed deployment of armored cars as the day's events lead to their bloody and public climax are written off as something the German feds and police simply forgot to do.

By the time we learn in a quick, rather rushed epilogue that the three agents of Black September who survived the spree of gunfire were not only rescinded into Arab protection by Willy Brandt's government but done so under a cheesecloth disguise of a faked airline abduction, the film's murmurs of a deeper, more telling, and even more rotten tale have risen to the volume of a scream. But Macdonald, apparently, can witness and listen to loopholes and demurrals like this—seduced, perhaps, by his laudable but wholly inadequate success in getting some sparsely identified Germans in suits to confess, or mostly confess, the worst allegations—and simply let the film keep spooling away. Several voices in the film justifiably complain about how the Games kept marching on, well into the day of September 5, and almost instantly after the memorial service for the fallen Israelis. The fact, however, that Macdonald virtually mirrors this dubious allegiance to sportsmanship with his music-cued and distracting midfilm montages of athletic prowess, seems not to have occurred to anyone. Likewise, an Israeli woman ventriloquizes the viewer's disgust at the gathering, police-inhibiting swarms of onlookers who surround first the Olympic barracks and later the airfield where the gun battle takes place. "Two men were already dead, and these are my people we're talking about!" the woman inveighs, angry but hardly hysterical, "and they were turning it into a show!" Surely Macdonald hears her. He even finds a newsman willing to confess the guilty consciences of himself and other reporters who realized what high ratings they were suddenly in for. But what to make, then, of the way that One Day in September adheres with such passion to its suspense-thriller templates, up to and including the intertitles of red digital time-signatures that look swiped from any bomb in any Bruckheimer production, or the nearly salacious way the film keeps editing its footage to conjure—however powerfully—the cyclonic dread of the day, as though the film has any debt to entertainment, or as if the cresting emotions of the moment supersede the documentarian's task of dissecting past the surface? Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post, in a revealingly symptomatic review, sidles up to the throbbing, angry question of the film's serial admissions of German incompetence, if "incompetence" truly reflects the real issue, but his write-up finally abandons its own implications, fully in synch with how the film does the same, and makes a final, connective leap from calling the film "fast-paced" to "utterly absorbing." Amy Taubin at least paused in the Village Voice long enough to admit that the film "could be described as the most gripping political thriller to hit the big screen in many years... [although] the words 'gripping' and 'thriller' have inappropriately frivolous and commercial associations."

These are hardly the only places where One Day in September's effectiveness and momentum as a thriller formed a basis for high praise, but surely these are deficient and arbitrary critical categories at best, and inhumane ones at worst, by which to assess a documentary on this topic? And just as surely, it is Macdonald's own promising but finally craven and quietistic proclivities, amplifying suspense at the high cost of moral sense, that allows, even encourages such reviews? The film's priorities tumble and list more outrageously as it goes on. Upon learning that German policemen dressed as a flight crew on the decoy getaway plane actually left their stations mere seconds before the terrorists' arrival with hostages in tow, the film lingers on a computer graphic of tiny green humanoids dispersing from the outlined craft, but contents itself with one quick statement by one of those officers, who describes the unanimous feeling that their placing amounted to a suicide mission. The intricate balances of common sense, professional abstention, moral frailty, strategic vagaries, and possible hindsight reassessment disappear right into the cracks of the film, sacrificed to the self-evidence of graphic illustration. Macdonald finds his nadir in a long photographic montage of the hostages' charred and gun-mauled bodies, scored to the same rock-music idiom of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin that is so incongruous throughout, but never as grotesquely as here. Empty as information, indelible but redundant and exploitative as historical testimony, but occasioned more than anything by the editing's incorrigible build-up toward ecstatic, thriller-like release—abetted here, too, by a further, nonsensical montage of fragments from the film's own tapestry—One Day in September hammers down the gavel in the case of its own perceptual ineptitude.

There is too much essential material in the movie for it to be swallowed by this black hole of gross sensationalism. Even when the film lacks the guts or the intelligence to do what Claude Lanzmann would do and probe the secret history of German errors and possible assists, the fact that One Day in September at least suggests these avenues for closer scrutiny raises the bar on its own value. But the film's imagination, its conception of what to do with its material, of what its most urgent material even is, is distressingly unreliable. In starting when the most apparent terrorists start and ending when their own involvement ends, in evoking sidebars and premises that are swiftly shunted back into darkness, in making the film more saleably coordinated to how the day was experienced than to how or why it came to pass, Macdonald seems to continue the pattern of hiding the soil and fertilizing process of political crime beneath the more obvious sights and symptoms of that crime's most putrid expressions, and for that, his film, an important one to see, is an important one to condemn. As filmmaking: B; As history: D; Combined: C


Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Documentary Feature

Other Awards:
British Independent Film Awards: Douglas Hickox Award (Macdonald); Best Offscreen Newcomer (Justine Wright, editor)

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