Just as the olympics in Australia are about to begin, HBO is airing this past year’s Oscar-winning documentary feature, One Day in September, about the terrorist attack on the 1972 Olympics held in Munich, Germany. The cold facts: Eight members of the Black September group, an unauthorized offshoot of the Palestine Liberation Organization, seized 11 Israeli athletes in their housing compound in the Olympic Village; all 11 were killed, as were five of the Palestinians. One Day in September reconstructs what went on behind those facts, and includes a rare interview with the only surviving Palestinian terrorist, Jamal Al Gashey, who has been living in hiding in Africa for more than 25 years.
As narrated by actor Michael Douglas, One Day in September explains that the Black September group decided to use the Olympics, attended by the world media, as a platform to promote its struggle for Palestinian freedom, and to demand the release of more than 200 ”revolutionary prisoners.” The film presents Germany as image-conscious above all else. Douglas’ narration asserts that ”the birthplace of Nazism” wanted to present a good face to the world and so resisted stopping the games, and — again, the film’s words — ”act[ed] with indecent haste” in turning over the three captured terrorists to Libya seven weeks after the awful events.
Germany would not allow Israel to use a team of its secret-service Mossad agents to take over the rescue attempt. Instead, the German government cobbled together a small group of its border police, untrained in terrorist maneuvers, to spearhead an effort to lure the captors and their hostages out of the Olympic Village and into a nearby airport — a clumsy plan that turned Furstenfeldbruck military airfield into the ultimate site of the massacre.
One Day is, mostly, a transfixing work; it deploys the pulsing music of Philip Glass, among others, and mixes original TV broadcast footage with fresh interviews. The filmmakers — director Kevin Macdonald and producer Arthur Cohn — frame the film around the recollections of Ankie Spitzer, widow of the Israeli team’s fencing coach, Andre Spitzer; they had been married a little more than a year when he was killed. At the start of the film, we see scenes of their wedding; at its conclusion, their grown daughter visits her father’s grave. It’s a sentimental device that runs counter to the otherwise crisp narrative, and one can fault the film as well for not placing the actions that occurred in a wider historical context of Israeli-Palestinian conflicts.
While One Day quite logically places much of the blame for the terrible outcome on Germany’s slow or obdurate reactions to the hostage situation, there are a few details involving America and the media I would suggest also deserve some censure not meted out by this film. The first, most crucially: The terrorists were able to infiltrate the Olympic Village through the moronic generosity of a group of drunken American athletes, who were sneaking back into the village and helped the disguised terrorists to enter. (Our country’s apparently eternal indulgence of jocks and their ”partying” never seems to waver, no matter what harm it causes.)
Second, the documentary points out that the Germans’ initial efforts to storm the rooms of the captive Israeli athletes were ruined because TV camera crews from around the world were broadcasting live feeds of what was occurring outside the apartment building — and there was a TV set in every room the Palestinians occupied, so the terrorists could see the German force swarming the building.
Here, surely, is a clear example of when a TV-media black-out is fully justified. There were plenty of print journalists around to report the events; TV camera crews, on the other hand, with their heedless appetite for as-it-happens raw footage, were actively harmful. And a comment made on the air at the time by ABC Sports’ Jim McKay, as the hours of difficult negotiation went on — ”Something has to happen” — succinctly summarizes the idiocy of an ingrained TV mentality, in which action (”good pictures,” in television terminology) takes precedence over everything, even endangered lives.
Watching One Day in September, your sense of decency resists being pulled into the skillful, TV-movie-like drama it creates. The film suggests that things haven’t changed much: Listen to the calm voice of Jamal Al Gashey, 28 years on, referring to this violent debacle as ”the operation” and saying he ”was very proud that for the first time I would be able to confront the Israelis.” He sits in three-quarter profile, shadowed, with a hat — shot, in other words, to preserve his anonymity, because otherwise he’d be just as dead as the people he killed and helped to kill. (His two Black September comrades, we are told in an endnote, were murdered later by ”secret Israeli assassination squads.”)
Gashey looks a little like a mummy — a talking corpse. As playwright David Hare said in the recent PBS broadcast of Via Dolorosa, his monologue about the Middle East conflict, ”I have met people who are choosing danger … yet who refuse to negotiate themselves out of that danger. Isn’t this a form of madness?” B