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Friday, January 30, 2009

Countdown To Oscar: One Day In September

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Best Documentary, 1999

Director: Kevin Macdonald

One Day In September centers on the hostage crisis at the 1972 Munich Olympics, a story powerful enough that it doesn’t need a lot of flash to be effective. Flash is, however, what the film gives it and, by doing so, treats the story like a generic Hollywood thriller. Kevin Macdonald’s documentary isn’t a bad film, but it is a film that doesn’t seem to know where it should be centered and who ought to be its main characters. The result is an uneven film that tries to be more entertaining than it is informative.

On the morning of September 5, 1972 eight Palestinian terrorists hopped the fence at the Olympic village, walked into the quarters of the Israeli men’s team and took 11 men hostage. At this point, you may be asking yourself how security was so lax as to allow that to happen and the answer is this: Germany, in an effort to rehab its image, shied away from having armed officers around the venues so as not to remind people of the last Olympics held in Germany, those held in Berlin in 1936. The film spends a lot of time focusing on the German past and the symbolic significance of the Israeli team being involved in such a crisis in Munich, where the Nazi party began its rise to power. Part of the problem with the film is the prominence that it gives to the history of the Nazis, who bear so little resemblance to the bungling German officials who figure into the hostage crisis. The time spent showing the usual stock footage of the 1936 Olympics would be better spent expanding on the conflict between Palestine and Israel, which is given only cursory attention in the film. It is, of course, a complex situation and not easily summarized but if the film had shifted its focus from the German past, cut out a few of the sports montages (of which there are several) and maybe given itself more than 90 minutes to tell its story, it may have given the film a little more weight and relevance.

The hostage crisis quickly becomes a media circus and the coverage of it seems to turn it more into “story” than fact for the others in the Olympic village. While the Israeli team is being held hostage, two of its members already murdered, life goes on in the village. Not far from the building housing the hostages, other athletes are shown sunning themselves on the lawn, playing ping pong, training for their upcoming events – because even though this terrible thing is happening, the Olympic committee has decided that the show must go on and the events will take place as planned. It is so bizarre to think of athletes competing and crowds cheering, all of them knowing that the lives of several people are being held in the balance just down the street. It’s even worse to think that later, when the terrorists and hostages are transported by helicopter to the airport, the streets become so congested with media and curious bystanders that German police can’t get through to provide some much needed backup to the ill-equipped and ill-trained officers already there.

The film consistently loses sight of what’s really important, relegating the terrorists and hostages to secondary status so that the focus can be on the German gong show. Admittedly, the series of failures on the part of the German officials took the situation from bad to worse, but what about the bigger picture? What about the impact all of this – particularly the release of the surviving terrorists by the Germans – on the already fraught relationship between Palestine and Israel? Macdonald focuses so much on the situation’s absurdities that the larger political context gets lost.

For all its problems, the film is nonetheless quite powerful, particularly the interviews with the family members of the slain Israelis. The murders were symbolic of many things to many different people, which can make it easy to forget that the dead men were actually people who left a very real void in the lives of others. The interviews Macdonald is able to conduct, including one with the only surviving terrorist, demonstrate a high level of commitment to telling this story and a desire to tell it in a full and rich way; it’s the way that the elements of the story are edited together that presents the greatest trouble.

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