One Day in September (1999)

Jim McKay: When I was a kid my father used to say our greatest hopes and our worst fears are seldom realized. Our worst fears have been realized tonight. They have now said there were eleven hostages; two were killed in their rooms yesterday morning, nine were killed at the airport tonight. They’re all gone.

Every now and then, a television announcer just nails the perfect quote. “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” “He’s moving like a tremendous machine!” “The Giants win the pennant!!”

ABC Olympic anchor Jim McKay nailed the sadness of the 1972 Munich Olympics Massacre.

Basically, a group of terrorists invaded the Israeli Olympic Team’s apartments in the Olympic village. They killed two men there; they killed the rest during a clusterfuck of a rescue attempt.

“One Day in September” covers this tragedy, featuring interviews with a surviving terrorist, as well as widows and now-grown children of fathers who never came home.  Also, there is plenty of TV coverage from those days. At one point, the German police were climbing on the building dressed as athletes. TV showed this live. The terrorists were watching. Duh. The bad guys weren’t fooled.

They negotiated a deal. They’d take buses to helicopters, who would fly the terrorists and the hostages to an airport, where a waiting 707 would fly them off to some undecided Arab country, and everyone would go home happy. The German police set up five snipers to kill the five terrorists once they got off the helicopters. Brilliant!

Except, it turns out there were nine terrorists. The snipers had no radios to talk to one another. One of the snipers…

It’s just abysmal.

The terrorists killed all the hostages: they tossed a grenade in one helicopter, and machine-gunned everyone in the other.

This film never hooked me. I’m a documentary fan, and I’ve seen some awesome documentaries (as well as some great dramatic films) about the 1972 Munich Olympiad.  The filmmaker seemed mostly interested in showcasing the German police’s inefficiency, and the crude desire of the Olympic executives to have the games continue. Yes, there were mistakes made. Yes, the Olympic officials were kind of dicks.

But the film…I don’t know. It didn’t capture the tension of those days. The filmmakers used a lot of rock music in the soundtrack (“Immigrant Song,” by Led Zeppelin, a Deep Purple tune, etc).

This was a huge tragedy. I admit, I’m not a huge fan of the Olympics. Other than women’s gymnastics and women’s softball, I just don’t care.  I never really have, especially since we sent our basketball “Dream Team” to destroy everyone. I admire the athletes, and I wish them all well. I just don’t really get stoked about watching fencing, white-water rafting, or weightlifting. Munich 1972 was a bitter tragedy, just a horrible event. The tragedy here wasn’t that the USA didn’t win a gazillion medals. People were KILLED, for God’s sake. That isn’t supposed to happen when the world comes together in peace and friendly competition, or whatever yak vomit NBC uses as ad copy this go round.

There are times when a sports story transcends just being about sports. Munich 1972 was an amazing example of this.

In this film, director Kevin Macdonald seems to be making a film about how cool it is to be making a film about the 1972 Olympics. His approach totally missed the solemnity of the event.  And there are few things more solemn than what happened that long day back in September, 1972.

Grade: C

(note: Through some satanic means, this thing won the 2000 Best Documentary Oscar. Read Roger Ebert’s review for his opinion on this. I agree totally.)

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3 Responses to “One Day in September (1999)”

  1. It was probably still in the memories of the people who watched it live. Something you’d never forget.

  2. It would appear that many people believe that the documentary format should be held to some sort of objective, news-gathering standard. Whenever two clips are spliced together, regardless of the content there is some editorializing. A documentary is an editorial. If you want nothing more than unopinionated truth, than the only avenue open to you is uninterrupted security camera footage. You can, and sometimes should, disagree with the opinions offered by the documentary filmmaker as a critical viewer, but one faulting the filmmaker for offering an opinion is like criticizing water for being wet. The line that must be discerned is whether the filmmaker is overly deceptive or insidious in trying to convince you of his or her opinion. This is a line that can be very difficult to draw.

    Mr. Ruvi Simmons of London does not seem to realize these basic tenets of documentary film-making: “One Day in September, however, concentrates more on the human interest of the event itself, neglecting background information in order to convey a one-sided and grossly biased perspective on a tragic occurrence.” I am a filmmaker, and I know that as such one must choose a theme and a perspective for a feature length documentary. The main problem that this person has with the film is that he is “that it neither explores the underlying issues behind the Israeli-Palestinian tensions.” This is a 2 hour film, not a 40 hour mini-series. There is no way that the filmmaker could have adequately explored the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and still told the story that he or she intended: the story of the hostage crisis at the Games of ’72. Mr. Simmons also took offense at the filmmaker for vilifying the terrorists who perpetrated this plot. I do not need to offer a critical retort as any logical person can understand why this statement is foolishness. It sounds as though Mr. Simmons feels as though the terrorists were justified in hurting innocent athletes a continent removed from their conflict. Obviously, this person would dislike this documentary (although he does not mention that the documentarian interviewed one of the terrorists to present his side of their story).

    If you want to have a solid introduction to the acts of terrorism at the Games of ’72, then this is a good work to watch. It is true that the thriller-style is a bit gimmicky, but it does add somewhat to the suspense if you do not know the outcome. If you are intending to see the film, “Munich,” then this is probably a good primer (I have not yet seen it as it has not been released). Just remember, this film is just as much an editorial as Spielburg’s film will be.

    • You make some excellent points, and I thank you for your erudite comments.

      I am not familiar with Mr. Simmons nor his review, although if–as you say–he implies that the terrorists were justified in their actions, then I would certainly take issue with him.

      You made two points with which I agree. First, it’s impossible to make an absolutely pure documentary. During the lead-up to the 50th Anniversary of the JFK assassination, I watched a number of documentaries, and it was nauseating how prejudiced most of them were (95% that Oswald was innocent, conspiracy, Cuba, Mafia, CIA, blah-cubed). Also, there were some excellent lines in the film “Good Night and Good Luck” dealing with bias in reporting. I know this is a fictional film based on actual events, but there was some wisdom that was true, regardless of the source (It’s an excellent film, and I recommend it, if you haven’t seen it yet)

      The other salient point you made is that this film is a good primer for someone unfamiliar with the events covered in “Munich.” This is true. I approached this film as somebody who has seen multiple documentaries about this tragedy, in addition to studying it in history classes. If I were unfamiliar with the events, “Munich” may have been more difficult to follow (I haven’t seen it yet either). I was comparing this film to what I’ve seen and read in aggregate over the course of my education and life, which is not fair to the film.

      What bothered me about the film was, as you put it, the “thriller-style” being “a bit gimmicky.” It was like watching an episode of a police drama in parts. Also, I thought the use of the rock music soundtrack (Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song,” e.g.) took away from the story’s solemnity.

      (One aside: I can only imagine the 24-hour coverage CNN, et alia, would give this story. It would turn it into a circus.)

      Over the past year or so, I’ve watched mostly documentaries, and I can see the slant in nearly every one. Sometimes the filmmaker’s views are more subtle than others, but there’s always some rudder shift to the left or the right. Either the cheetah is amazing, or the gazelle is an innocent victim. Nothing is immune.

      My criticism was based on this filmmaker’s presentation, which I considered to be less-serious than the event deserved. The events in Munich were horrific; to me, he didn’t convey that. Primer for “Munich”? Absolutely. Stand-alone documentary about the tragedy in 1972? In my opinion, no.

      Thank you again for your eloquent comment.

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