- The Washington Times - Friday, September 8, 2000

If we give in, no Israeli anywhere in the world is safe. This is blackmail of the worst kind.

— Golda MeirIsraeli prime minister

It's easy to forget, 28 years and numerous Yasser Arafat makeovers later, the despicable depths to which the Palestinians sunk in 1972, when left-wing Palestinian terrorists attacked the Olympic Village in Munich.

They killed two Israeli athletes, took nine others hostage and demanded the release of more than 200 terrorists (including such icons of Arab nationalism as Andreas Baader) from Israeli and German jails. The attack halted the Olympics for one day in September — the title of a brilliant documentary airing Monday on HBO, five months after winning this year's Academy Award for best documentary feature.

A testament to the strength of "One Day in September" is that it sort of works as a thriller, even though the plot and ending are both known in advance: Mrs. Meir rejects negotiations with terrorists, who then prove their mettle by murdering all nine hostages during a botched rescue attempt by German police at a Munich airport.

The documentary accomplishes this through extensive use of archival footage of that day's TV coverage, mostly from ABC Sports' Jim McKay. The film has plenty of contemporary interviews with German and Israeli officials and families of the murdered athletes, but this footage keeps the film's momentum going. It uses Mr. McKay like an on-screen narrator, and one who really doesn't know how it's going to end. After the failed rescue, the film even shows front-page headlines of early and special newspaper editions, echoing the premature claims that the athletes had all been saved.

"One Day in September" also skillfully weaves together newsreel footage from the Olympic Village and still photos.

One scene cuts from a present-day interview with an Arab diplomat recounting how he told terrorist leader Issa that his demands never would be met. Then several still photos show a masked man pumping his arm and lecturing the diplomat back. We also see plenty of ABC News footage with live commentary, showing weapon-toting German policemen moving around the building and getting in position to storm the terrorists' rooms. Nothing happens, but we learn that all the rooms had TVs, keeping the terrorists abreast of the police efforts.

"One Day in September" spells out in excruciatingly painful detail, sometimes using modern computer-animated re-creations, just how thoroughly the West Germans (who still had the national image of "utter ruthless efficiency") botched everything.

Trying not to project a "police" (i.e. Nazi) image, West Germany had almost no security at the Olympic Village, and as a nation did not even have an anti-terrorist commando unit that could properly execute a rescue raid.

One part of the rescue operation was scotched at the last second because police, exhibiting the spirit of the new democratic Germany, voted unanimously not to go forward with it because it was too risky. At the airport, they had only five snipers with no steel helmets, no bulletproof vests and no radio contact among themselves and were so incompetently deployed that they were in each other's line of fire. These "snipers" didn't even have sniper rifles.

"Unbelievable," muses Zvi Zamir, the then-head of the Israeli secret service, Mossad.

The most memorable character in "One Day in September" is also the most despicable — Jamal Al-Gashey, the only one of the Palestinian terrorists still alive. His interview, apparently the first public commentary on his killings since his 1972 gloatings in Libya, is the documentary's great journalistic coup.

Right away, you learn to despise him. "I felt very proud that for the first time I was able to confront the Israelis … We had no orders to kill but were forced to do it when things went wrong … We were to do everything necessary to defend ourselves and our operation," he says.

Several times, when Al-Gashey starts engaging in this sort of 1984 doublespeak, the documentarians cut away from his partially blacked-out face and look at his hands, as if this self-serving bosh is too painful for eye contact. Press materials say he's living in hiding "somewhere in Africa."

The other bucket of cold water this documentary throws lands on the modern Olympic ideal. We learn that the team from East Germany helped the Palestinian terrorists both scout the village during the planning stage and fed them information during the siege.

Al-Gashey, speaking today, says: "I'm proud of what I did at Munich because it helped the Palestinian cause enormously. On that day, the name 'Palestine' was [heard] around the world." He's probably right; and that's the most-revolting commentary of all.

"One Day in September" is so good, so insightful that you want to reach into the screen and tear out its one flaw.That flaw goes beyond an artistic lapse into a serious misjudgment on a matter of good taste.

After the events in Munich are over, the film shows graphic photos of the carnage at the airfield and at the Olympic Village.

I do not object to the photos themselves — they are necessary. But the images are accompanied on the soundtrack by a riff of heavy metal music from Deep Purple. I suppose it's meant as some sort of existential wail. Instead, the exciting, hard-pounding rhythms dominate the images and turn the scene into something closer in tone to "A Clockwork Orange" or "Natural Born Killers" — the victorious exultation of the blood-soaked conqueror over his prey.{*}{*}{*}1/2xHAT: "One Day in September"WHERE: HBOWHEN: 8 to 9:30 p.m. Monday.CREDITS: Producer, Arthur Cohn; director, Kevin Macdonald; narrator, actor Michael Douglas

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