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'One Day': The World Held Hostage

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2000


    'One Day in September' A scene from "One Day in September," which chronicles the 1972 day when Palestinian terrorists struck the Olympic village in Munich. (Sony Pictures Classics)
Once upon a time, there was a world with no commandos. Small police departments in Iowa did not routinely field teams of Tommy Tacticals in black Nomex ninja suits practiced at sniping, dynamic entry and the theory and practice of the H&K MP-5 submachine gun and the flash-bang grenade.

That we now live in a thoroughly SWAT-teamed world may well be the melancholy residue of a single event in September 1972, when Palestinian terrorists took 11 Israeli athletes hostage in their rooms at the Munich Olympics. At the end of a very long day of misjudgment, mistake, yellow-bellied cowardice and incompetence, the world was different. That is the subject of the excellent "One Day in September," which won last year's documentary feature Oscar even though it hadn't been released yet. Now it makes its theatrical debut some months after its well-received American premiere on HBO.

Kevin Macdonald's film superbly re-creates that horrifying day minute by minute – but so have others. It offers a computerized re-creation of the final events at Furstenfeldbruck air base, but that, too, is familiar. What it has that no other documentary or book has had is an interview with the one surviving terrorist from that day.

His name is Jamal al-Gashey and he sits before the camera in disguise – to prevent the Israelis, who have a long memory in such matters, from whacking him yet – and recounts his adventures in the most pedestrian of terms. You know, stuff like: "We were honored to help our cause and follow our leadership." Well, how illuminating. When you finally get one of these birds to talk, he says nothing. What was it somebody said about the banality of evil?

The movie is a horrifying accumulation of dismal details, and it makes one thing painfully clear: the Germans (then the West Germans) were caught flat-footed and had no apparatus or unit in place to respond. Lacking policy, experience, equipment and, most of all, the right mind-set, they simply took the path of least resistance and permitted events to unspool. Perhaps worst, they refused to let an experienced Israeli team into their country to deal with the situation.

Finally agreeing to provide an escape plane at a nearby military airfield after two of the hostages were killed at the Olympic site, they set in motion the most ill-planned, passive-aggressive counterterrorist op in history. A group of policemen hid aboard the plane – their job was to nab the terrorist leadership when it inspected the aircraft – and five snipers took up positions in a building overlooking the field, tasked with picking off the other terrorists.

When the two helicopters bearing the terrorists and the surviving hostages arrived, the policemen in the airplane decided they were on a "suicide mission" and abandoned their positions. Then it turned out the five snipers didn't have night-vision equipment or even designated sniper rifles; they were just five randomly picked policemen with guns.

The action seems to have started slowly with a single missed shot, then devolved into sporadic gunfire for close to two hours, with no clear tactical plan in place. Finally, the surviving terrorists tossed a grenade into one helicopter and sprayed the second with gunfire, killing the remaining hostages.

The film, built of interviews with participants, is fast-paced, utterly absorbing and ultimately tragic. A title-card coda informs us that the Germans eventually formed what would become one of the world's crack anti-terrorist units. A clear case of too much, too late.

"One Day in September" (92 minutes, at Visions Cinema) is not rated, but it contains honest but demoralizing photographs of murder victims and other corpses.


Copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company

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