One Day in September
Reviewed in December 2005
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.

Photo © 1999 Sony Pictures Classics/Passion Pictures/
Arthur Cohn Productions/BBC/Dan Valley Film AG
Based on his two most celebrated efforts, I must admit that Kevin Macdonald's relation to documentary form and his particular ways of grasping his subjects continue 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. The movie further and further tests the viewer's confidence until the film almost collapses at the end. The immediate content and lingering 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 potent case for the movie's value. Moreover, 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 most persuasively to the heart of the matter at hand. 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. He must be quite a silver-tongue to persuade this rich, diverse gallery of commentators to participate, yet he gets too caught up in his movie's own elaborate rhetoric to really wrestle with the stakes of the story.

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 bring 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 resound with the clarity of a bell. They illuminate how the grief of the helpless, onlooking loved one is both heartbroken and practical, as she remembers the series of phone calls she made and received through the long day of September 5, 1972, and as she evokes in such frank, telling, personal detail how inscrutable the day's events must remain to anyone who wasn't there.

The real heft of the picture, though, lies in uncovering how both the crisis and its response proved stubbornly inscrutable even to the ground crews, police officers, negotiators, and other figures who were so blindly and quickly implicated in the unfolding events. 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 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 for a long enough period to enable the extraction of over 200 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, from the perpetrators' point of view, had already spun out of control even before the people they attacked—much less the world at large—knew what was happening, or why, or within what intended limits.

Unfortunately, Macdonald doesn't press Jamal on the point of whether the brutal violence was truly unpremeditated, 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 been orchestrating this event. To be fair to the filmmakers' design, though perhaps also to raise a question about its scope, 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. Jamal's discourse, truncated or remote in many respects, may not be a site where the film can press its case with full energy or confidence. 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 what it was on this one day. Macdonald foregrounds the sheer, revolting vulnerability of the Israelis and the merciless aggression of their captors. This strikes me as defensible, regardless of how frustrating and limiting it is to alight on any flashpoint in history without a full grasp of where, historically speaking, the episode came from, what it accompanied or immediately answered, or where it led. Indeed, the Brazilian documentary Bus 174, a more recent and admittedly stronger film about another hostage crisis, nonetheless showed that padding a film with dollops of generalized context can hamper the exploration of a specific incident as much as they help to reveal it. Memory and understanding have to start somewhere, and besides, is it really worth contesting that, on that one day in September, one group of Israelis suffered as one group of Palestianians attacked?

Macdonald does interpolate some late footage where Jamal Al Gashey admits to his continued pride in his complicity. In his view, the event elicited 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, makes the whole film feel bolder in the ways it characterizes Arab/Israeli antagonism than it is in delving into the more immediate issues of this particular crisis, despite its being Macdonald's insistent point of focus. How the Germans conducted and in many ways bungled their rescue efforts, what questions the whole incident raised around the world about the methods and flows of terrorist action: on these questions the film falls down repeatedly. Twice, the name "East Germany" emerges in stomach-turning contexts, first when 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 counterterrorist mission to penetrate the complex and forcibly reclaim the hostages is thwarted by East German camera crews. Those men film the preparations for this attempted rescue, air them live, and—unwittingly or not, the film is unclear—wind up alerting the Black September squad to every single maneuver of their opponents, before they've even been realized.

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. The term operates as its own stand-in for fathomless moral abdication, like "Chinatown" does at the end of Robert Towne's famous script. No promontory, no clarity of vision is permitted beyond that opaque, sour-tasting stopgap of "East Germany," even though the facts of the case get more complicated and 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, trustworthy, and successfully purged of fascist residues 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. These include honing a sniper squad, allowing remote communications between deputies, or even just staying the hell out of sight when it most matters to do so amidst a sting operation or a hostage negotiation. Details about how and why the German refused outside aid, including a proposal from the sadly experienced Israelis themselves, are hastily glossed over. The non-involvement of the German military is just as summarily dismissed in Douglas's narration—an effect, he tells us, of "complicated border laws," though I'm not sure quite what that means. The fatally delayed deployment of armored cars, as the day's events led to a bloody and public climax, are written off as something the German feds and police simply forgot to do.

We learn (or re-learn) in a quick, rather rushed epilogue that the three agents of Black September who survived the spree of gunfire were soon remanded into Arab protection by Willy Brandt's government; moreover, this inflammatory move was made under the cheesecloth disguise of a faked airline abduction. By that time, the film's murmurs about some deeper, more telling, and even more rotten tale have risen to the volume of a scream. There is more to everyone's agenda, more to their accidental failures, and more to their evidently purposeful failures than even this film is telling us, despite its promise to do just that. Macdonald, despite a patina of confronting tough material in muscular fashion, insufficiently engages. Several voices in the film justifiably complain about how the Games kept marching on, well into the day of September 5. They also resumed almost instantly after the memorial service for the fallen Israelis. In a way, though, Macdonald virtually mirrors this dubious allegiance to sportsmanship with his distracting midfilm montages of athletic prowess, scored with vigorous music cues that feel incongruous to the rest of the movie, as though it, too, is panicked that we will forget the Olympic context or fail to note the ambient demonstrations of other people's prowess. How is this necessary? How, indeed, is it not a borderline insult to the memory of the fallen, or an under-motivated departure for a movie that, in other ways, Macdonald has refused to furnish with concentric fields of context?

Likewise, an Israeli woman ventriloquizes a different way in which Macdonald's viewers might feel distressed, even disgusted. She recalls the police-inhibiting swarms of onlookers who surrounded first the Olympic barracks and later the airfield where the ultimate 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 his own guilty conscience and that of other reporters who realized what high ratings they were suddenly in for, even at the cost of impeding law enforcement or adding to the chaos. 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 sick-making dread of the day? As in its cutaways to athletic glory, the film seems to feel some debt to "entertain" us, while also (sort of) elucidating a crucial and deeply painful historical episode. The call to suggest the surging and cresting emotions of the moment (the quickening pulses, the evaporation of optimism, the countdown toward doom) evidently supersede the documentarian's obligation to dissecting the story at hand as more than a propulsive thriller.

Stephen Hunter of The Washington Post, in a revealingly symptomatic review, gets close to asking a salient question about the oft-professed "incompetence" of the German police, and whether mere "error" is too innocent a name for how they comported themselves. Hunter, however, abandons this implied tack in his critique, in sync with how the film avoids this horrifying but urgent line of questioning. His piece makes a final, connective leap from calling the film "fast-paced" to "utterly absorbing," as though these qualities, linked more to bodily sensation than moral cogitation, are inherent goods in any cinematic encounter. At least Amy Taubin paused long enough in her Village Voice review 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 effective momentum as a thriller formed a basis for high praise. Surely, though, these are deficient ways to approach much less to laud the film without further, critical attention. They may even register as inhumane lenses through which to assess a documentary on this topic. It strikes me that Macdonald's own craven proclivities, amplifying suspense at the high cost of ethical sense, is what allows or even encourages reviews like these, even when the critic senses they've been lured down an inappropriate path.

The film's priorities tumble and list more outrageously as it goes on. At a late moment, we learn that German policemen dressed as a flight crew on the decoy getaway planeקintended as a trap to ensnare the terrorists—had abandoned their stations mere seconds before their quarries arrived, with hostages very much in tow. The film lingers at this point on a computer graphic of tiny green humanoids dispersing from the outlined craft, familiar from any number of espionage films or sci-fi/action spectacles of recent decades. One Day in September's generic aspirations are clear, but where, exactly, is its mind? Macdonald contents himself with one quick statement by one of those AWOL officers, who describes the whole cohort's unanimous feeling that their placement amounted to a suicide mission. The sinister, Aliens-style image of these men's absconding from assigned duty, at likely grievous cost to the Israeli hostages, is a "pulse-pounding" stand-in for more noble, more trenchant inquiry into what these men were doing, or thinking. Macdonald hits his nadir in a long photographic montage of the hostages' charred and gun-mauled bodies, scored to a rock-music idiom of Deep Purple and Led Zeppelin that feels so incongruous throughout One Day in September, but never as grotesquely as here. Empty as information, indelible but exploitative as historical testimony, seemingly necessitated by the film's implacable build-up toward ecstatic, thriller-like release, One Day in September brings down the gavel and proves itself guilty in the case of its own moral waywardness.

There is too much essential material in the movie for it to be swallowed by this black hole of gross sensationalism. Clearly, the film lacks the guts or the intelligence to do what Claude Lanzmann would do—that is, probe the secret history of German errors and possible complicity. The fact, though, that One Day in September at least suggests these avenues for closer scrutiny means that it retains some critical value. We see, hear, and learn enough to imagine where a better, braver, more honest movie might have forced itself and its audience to travel. But the film's imagination, its conception of what to do with its material, of what its most urgent material even is, proves distressingly unreliable. Starting at the moment the terrorists get started, ending as their own involvement ends, evoking sidebars and relevant motives that get shunted back swiftly into darkness, the film commits too much to how the day may have felt, and how our own affects can be agitated, rather than what the day meant, or why it happened as it did. In those respects, Macdonald's film, an arguably important one to see, is also important to critique, and possibly to condemn. As filmmaking: B; As history: D; Combined? Grade: 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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