The killing of the Israeli contingent at the 1972 Munich Summer Olympic Games was certainly a story that received much media play both when it happened and in the years since. But how it occurred, why it occurred and why the Germans were so unprepared for it all remain a mystery.
One Day in September-an Academy Award-winning feature-length documentary set to bow on Home Box Office just days before the torch is lit for this year's Sydney games-answers many of these questions and does so in a surprisingly evenhanded manner.
That's possible because in addition to German and Israeli officials, journalists and surviving relatives of the slain athletes, producer Arthur Cohn and director Kevin Macdonald were able to track down Jamil Al Gashey, one of the surviving Palestinian "Black September" terrorists who carried out the attack.
The film starts off not with archival footage, but with home movies of the Israeli athletes interspersed with footage of life in a Lebanese refugee camp for Palestinians, giving the viewers the perspective of both the captors and their captives.
Michael Douglas' narration is sparse and to the point, giving participants the opportunity to tell the story in their own words.
"If we didn't return [to Palestine], I would spend my whole life as a refugee deprived of any human rights," Al Gashey says, explaining why he signed on with Black September. "I wasn't just a wretched refugee, but a revolutionary fighting for the cause."
Viewers also learn a few things they might not have known about the tense Olympic standoff, such as why there was such a lack of security on the part of German officials.
Less than 40 years after the onset of World War II-and with the specter of Adolf Hitler's propaganda-driven 1936 Berlin games not far from organizers' minds-the organizers wanted Germany not to appear too "militaristic," so armed guards were kept away from the Olympic Village.
There's also a blow-by-blow of the botched rescue attempt at the airport that goes into graphic detail about what went wrong and how. German officials are surprisingly frank about their failings, including their lack of a tactical-response team to handle the situation.
But there's also plenty you've seen before, particularly in U.S. rehashings of the incident. The film relies heavily on videotape from ABC's coverage of the crisis, and the voices of sportscaster Jim McKay and newscaster Peter Jennings are heard almost as frequently as that of Douglas. And much of the footage is culled from old ABC tapes.
But the grisly photos of the scene at the airport following the shootings will definitely leave an impression on viewers, as will Al Gashey's comments about how proud he was to have brought attention to the Palestinian cause-particularly when contrasted with images of an adult woman placing flowers on the grave of the father she never knew.
To its credit, the film leaves the viewer to decide if the former was really worth the latter.
One Day in September will premiere Sept. 11 on HBO.