..

ONE DAY IN SEPTEMBER

Review by Michael Jacobson

Narrator:  Michael Douglas
Director:  Kevin MacDonald
Audio:  Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.78:1
Studio:  Sony
Features:  None
Length:  91 Minutes
Release Date:  December 20, 2005

Film ***1/2

One Day in September plays out like a tragedy of errors.  Watching the details of the Israeli hostage crisis at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich and the subsequent botched rescue attempt by German armed forces, one can only ponder:  just how much could possibly go wrong?  Had this been a scripted work of fiction, it would have been impossible to believe.

The great initial irony was in the fact that this was the first Olympics held in Germany since the infamous 1936 games which played out like a massive Nazi propaganda machine (as observed in Leni Riefenstahlís documentary Olympia).  This was the countryís big chance to show the world how much they had changed in the decades since.

In order to erase the image of Germany as a militant country, security was toned way down for the games.  Watching the footage, itís clear that the presence of police, guards, or any other form of protection is gone.  If the athletes were supposed to watch out for one another, nobody told them.  In fact, surviving Palestinian terrorist Jamal Al Gashey, who appears in this documentary, recalls that he and his fellow men were actually helped over the fence by some American team members, who were drunk and sneaking in past curfew.

After that, it was a fairly easy task for the eight terrorists to round up eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team.  Two who resisted were shot immediately; the others held hostage while the Palestinians made a demand on the nation of Israel for the release of some of their comrades in arms taken prisoner.  Israel immediately voiced her policy of never submitting to terrorist demands:  to do so would make every Jewish person in the world a potential target.  What to do?

The Olympic committee, caught off guard and unsure how to proceed, elected at first to continue the games.  Some of the filmís most surreal images are of the international athletes relaxing or working out in the plaza of the teamsí residencesÖbasically, right below the dorms where the terrorists and their hostages were holed up.  From time to time, a figure in sunglasses can be seen peering out the window, sizing up the situation.

After angry protests, the games were suspended, and with the deadline running out, the German government decides to take drastic action.  A SWAT team is deployed around and on top of the terroristsí lair.  Thankfully, they aborted the mission at the last possible moment.  Their actions were all being recorded on live television, and the Palestinians were watching the impending attack!

The final confrontation proved to be even more of a nightmare.  The terrorists, with their hostages, were being transported by helicopter to the airport, where a fueled jet is waiting for them per their instructions.  The Germans, who actually lacked any kind of anti-terrorist squad, prepared for battle.  Believing there were only four or five terrorists as opposed to the actual eight, five snipers were placed atop the tower.  They had no radios, so when it was learned the number of enemies was greater, no one could communicate that information to them.  An additional sniper was stationed in the middle of the landing area, in a good position for where the helicopter would land.  The waiting jet was manned with five police men disguised as a flight crew.

And it all went awry.  The helicopter didnít land in the right spot, putting the lone sniper right in the crossfire.  The team on the jet took a last minute vote, and feeling it was a suicide mission, abandoned their post with no way to tell their superiors what they had done.  Armored cars were supposed to be standing by, but somehow, it was forgotten to deploy them until 20 minutes into the firefight.  When they were finally sent, the newly crowded streets caused an hourís delay in their arrival.  Two cops, unaware of the schematics of the plan, accidentally shot the middle sniper and the helicopter pilot after mistaking them for the terrorists.

The early reports were favorable, indicating the hostages were safe and the terrorists dead.  This turned out to be far from true.  Hours later, everyoneís worst fears were confirmed:  three terrorists survived.  All of the Israeli hostages were killed.  And the next day, the games resumed.

The deaths of the Israeli athletes served as an indelible exclamation point to the most unbelievably botched military action in modern history.  Interviews with the surviving family members are emotional; ones with the German police and military members are bewildering.  The segments with Gashey are horrifying, especially when he sheds light on one last remaining mystery from that day in September.  A hijacked plane, ransomed for the release of himself and his two surviving comrades, had been staged by the German government, who wanted to wash their hands of the affair as quickly as possible.  The three men never stood trial for their actions.  Two would later die via Israeli assassins.  Only Gashey remains, and he emerged from his African hiding for the first time since his release to tell the tale and convey his pride in his actions for this documentary.

This is a powerful, amazing and frighteningly compelling documentary, directed by Kevin MacDonald and produced by Oscar winner Arthur Cohn.  Combining the fresh interview footage with the film records of the events of 1972, along with some computer graphics demonstrating the strategy (or lack thereof) of the rescue operation make this an unsettling yet absorbing film.

One Day in September is also the picture that caused the huge controversy at the Academy Awards for 1999, where it was named Best Documentary.  Arthur Cohn was accused of manipulating the vote in favor of his film.  By Academy rules, only those members who have seen all five nominated documentaries may vote in that category, and the shrewd Cohn forewent a standard theatrical exhibition in favor of private, invitation-only screenings, thus assuring that only those individuals he selected would be allowed to cast a vote.  Many members on the board of documentaries have since called for Cohnís Oscar to be rescinded.

But controversy aside, itís fairly clear when viewing this picture that it does have Oscar-winning merits.  Itís the rare documentary that details a horrific historical event while shedding brand new light on it at the same time.  And in the end, it becomes not a record of the horrors of volatile, international politics, but the horrors of benign, domestic, ineffectual ones that insured a tense situation would only resolve itself in the worst case scenario possible.

Video ***1/2

This is actually a remarkable anamorphic widescreen transfer from Columbia Tri Star.  I wasnít expecting much, as documentaries arenít always filmed under the best of conditions, and this one would contain a hodgepodge of sources compiled into a single film.  The picture quality is extraordinary throughout, with clean, crisp, sharp images and surprisingly good coloring.  Sure, bits of older material show their age somewhat, but not nearly as much as you might think.  Overall, the visuals flow smoothly from old to modern and back again.  Obviously, a great deal of attention to detail was paid during the construction of the movie, as well as for the DVD authoring. 

Audio ***1/2

Another pleasant surpriseÖthis is actually one of the better 2 channel surround tracks Iíve heard.  Music and sound effects are well used throughout, bringing both front and rear stages into play for maximum effect.  The dialogue is crystal clear, and the dynamic range is impressively wide.  This is a much more absorbing listening experience than you would expect from a documentary, and I believe all DVD fans will be as delighted as I was.

Features (zero stars)

Nothing.

Summary:

One Day in September is a terrific, fascinating and unsettling documentary about a bad situation made worse and the black mark it left not only on the history of international politics, but on the grand tradition of the Olympic games as well.  Itís terrifying to consider just how much these Israeli athletesí lives depended upon a poorly planned and shoddily executed rescue operation by an inexperienced team of operatives, and to witness the tragedy that unfolds as a result. 

FREE hit counter and Internet traffic statistics from freestats.com