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One Day in September

For West Germany, the 1972 Munich Olympics represented a new beginning. Still recovering from the Second World War — with its legacy of Nazism and the near-wholesale destruction of the country's infrastructure — the XXth Olympiad showcased a West Germany reborn from the ashes of the Third Reich, a vastly different nation than the one that had warped the 1936 Olympics into Nazi propaganda. "Serenity" and "Peace" were the themes the Germans offered the world in 1972, to such an extent that police were not allowed in the Olympic Village, only unarmed security guards in powder-blue suits. American swimmer Mark Spitz earned a record seven gold medals; Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut enchanted the world, earning three golds in the process; and the U.S. basketball team lost their first Olympic event ever, falling to the U.S.S.R. in a close game with a controversial conclusion (in protest of the officiating, the U.S. refused to accept the silver medal). And yet the 1972 Olympiad is doomed to have its sporting achievements relegated to the footnotes of history — instead, Munich marks the birthplace of modern terrorism.

Director Kevin Macdonald's 1999 documentary One Day in September chronicles the events of Sept. 5, 1972, as a group of eight Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village in the pre-dawn hours and rapidly overtook the building housing the Israeli Olympic team. Nine hostages were taken at gunpoint, while two who attempted to resist were shot and killed on the spot. By the time the sun had risen, West German authorities found themselves negotiating with "Black September," an inscrutable band of political radicals. Their lone spokesman — "Issa," with his pith helmet, sunglasses, and shoe-polish-blackened face — demanded the release of more than 200 Arab prisoners in Israel and elsewhere by 12 noon. Negotiators were able to convince him to delay the deadline, but it soon was apparent that neither the Israeli government nor the terrorists would back down. After further negotiations, Black September arranged for the transfer of themselves and their hostages to the Munich airport via helicopter, where they demanded a fully fueled jet that would fly them to a friendly country. But what transpired at the airport, after darkness had settled over the city, remains one of the most controversial events in modern German history.

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As a documentary, One Day in September is well worth its 90-minute running time for anybody with an interest in 20th century history, and especially the history of Israel — with narration by Michael Douglas, director Macdonald fills his story with archival footage and interviews in a compelling manner that effectively conveys information and also creates a great deal of tension as the day unfolds. But as strong as it is in cinematic terms, where One Day in September really scores its points is with some old-fashioned gumshoe journalism that would put the folks at "60 Minutes" to shame. After Sept. 5, 1972, the Israeli government vowed to retaliate against Black September, and the three surviving members (formerly in German custody, but escaped to Algeria) were targeted for assassination. Only one has survived to this day — Jamal al-Gashey — whom Macdonald amazingly was able to contact and, after extensive negotiations, interview for six hours. With his face concealed, the terrorist provides the first-ever comments from a member of Black September on what happened inside the Israeli athletes' residence that day (al-Gashey remains in hiding in Africa, having survived several attempts on his life). Also confirmed for the first time by Macdonald is that an airliner hijacking and subsequent release of the three Black September terrorists from German prison was in fact staged by the German government in the hopes of preventing future terrorist attacks in their country. The allegation was not without controversy — One Day in September was denied a screening at the Berlin Film Festival in 1999; however, Macdonald (whose grandfather was the legendary Emeric Pressburger) went on to earn an Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Columbia TriStar's DVD release of One Day in September features a clean anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with audio in the original Dolby 2.0 Surround. Features are thin (three trailers for related films and production notes) and additional details from Macdonald or producer Arthur Cohn, in either a production short or commentary track, would have been welcome. However, the lack of extras is no reason to skip this film (and an excellent interview with Macdonald can be found at Director's World). Keep-case.
—JJB



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