ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER (1999)

  • Director: Kevin MacDonald
  • Starring: Michael Douglas, Ankie Spitzer, Jamal Al-Gashey, Jim McKay, Peter Jennings, Ulrich Wegener, and Zvi Zamir
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Documentary)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming (with ads) on Pluto TV app, buy or rent on Amazon Video

I am someone who read a lot of books about Olympic history, mostly in my younger days. Every few years, they kept getting more and more out of date. Anyway, if somebody knows, say, five things about the Olympics, one of them is that, during the 1972 summer games in Munich, West Germany, a group of Islamic terrorists calling themselves “Black September” invaded the Olympic Village and took 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage in their rooms. After two days of tense negotiations, an attempted rescue of the hostages at the Munich airport resulted in the deaths of all 11 hostages, one West German police officer, and five of the terrorists. A mass funeral was held at the Olympic Stadium, and the day after that the games resumed. That is pretty much all I knew about these events before watching One Day in September, as it had never been something I really wanted to dwell on.

So I actually learned a lot from this documentary, which goes over the events in very matter-of-fact, granular detail. One thing I learned, if One Day in September’s version of events is to be believed, and I think it probably is, is that, while the terrorist acts were obviously truly evil, was how much worse the local authorities made things through total and utter incompetence. It was not a situation where they tried their best, but unfortunately they weren’t able to save everyone. It was, if you’ll excuse my French, a complete shitshow. At one point, several members of the police tried to sneak up on the terrorists over the roof of the building, the dramatic pictures being shown on TV around the world from the news cameras across the street. They waited for the terrorist on guard to move, but he never did. “Later we found out they had TV in all the rooms, and so they could see us coming,” one talking head explains. You only figured this out later? Even worse, at the airport none of the sharpshooters assigned to take out the terrorists were given radios, meaning they had no way to coordinate their fire and no way to tell each other when the guy they were shooting at was actually friendly. It seems nuts, but it’s all apparently true.

Most of One Day in September takes an extremely matter-of-fact tone, going through those few days in minute detail. The actor Michael Douglas provides very occasional, highly expository narration. The filmmakers do get closer to the story than I would have thought possible. One Israeli coach who was able to escape during the initial attack returns to the actual building where the attack took place, retracing the actual route he used to run away, explaining very calmly all the while. They also include interview footage that is apparently of the only surviving member of the terrorists, with his face darkened and voice disguised, explaining what the terrorists were doing at various times. The three surviving terrorists were arrested, but about a month later were released by German authorities as part of a deal to end a terrorist hijacking of a Lufthansa flight. As you may recall from Steven Spielberg’s Munich, Mossad then undertook a secret program to kill everyone responsible for the Olympic attack, which is why there was only one survivor to interview for this documentary.

The straightforward tone makes the final few minutes of One Day in September all the more jarring, when the filmmakers choose to show a long series of extremely graphic photos of dead bodies, taken in the aftermath of the events at the airport, all set to an angry rock song by Deep Purple. This seems to me to be a very strange and unnecessary decision. Not because I found the photos to be too graphic or upsetting, though they certainly were, but because it (a) feels so far out of the tone of the rest of the documentary, and perhaps more importantly, (b) because it feels disrespectful to the innocent victims and their families. It feels wrong to spend so much time interviewing Ankie Spitzer, the widow of a murdered fencing coach, much of it about what a great guy he was, and then to show a close-up of his bloody corpse.

Roger Ebert had a very similar review, calling the movie “well-researched,” “gripping,” and “relentless,” but criticized its “tasteless conclusion.” He also continued his ongoing feud with the people running the Best Documentary category at the Oscars, which One Day in September won. At that time, the rules stated that only members who had seen all of the nominated films were allowed to vote. This might seem like a good idea, except that Arthur Cohn, producer of this movie and many other documentaries, figured out that if he only showed his movies to small groups of invited people, he could basically make it so that only his friends could vote. So while it surprised many viewers on Oscar night when One Day in September received the award over Buena Vista Social Club, a much more widely-seen film about Cuban musicians, directed by the great Wim Wenders, it was unsurprising to many people within the documentary community.

Whatever appeal One Day in September has comes from its subject matter, which is inherently important and gripping, and not from anything it does or does not do stylistically. Director Kevin MacDonald’s expertise seems to be in meticulous research and legwork, in landing the interview that nobody else could get. From a presentation standpoint, there isn’t much difference between One Day in September and your average Netflix true crime doc. That said, I think the subject matter is interesting enough, and the information presented important enough, that I would recommend it to most people.

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