Judge David Johnson thinks Jack Bauer would have kicked the crap out of Black September—he'd just need three more hours to do it.
The darkest day in sports history.
With Steven Spielberg's looming treatment of the aftermath of the Munich Olympics massacre, the release of this three-decade old made-for-television movie, chronicling the white-knuckle day of the hostage crisis, isn't really surprising. Does it merit a release because of its quality or are we talking split-second cash-in opportunity?
Facts of the Case
On Sept. 5, 1972, at the Olympic village in Munich, West Germany, a group of Palestinian terrorists known as Black September infiltrated the Israeli athletes' dormitories and took them hostage at gunpoint, murdering two men in the process. What would unfold would be a day of infamy, as the world watched the nightmare play out before their eyes.
Black September demanded the release of over 250 Palestinian prisoners, held by Israel, in exchange for the athletes' lives. Golda Meir (Else Quecke), refused, invoking Israel's unwavering policy of never capitulating to terrorists' demands. Meanwhile, as the negotiations stall, the German authorities, led by the chief of police (William Holden) begin to map out an ambush scenario to free the athletes through force.
What would transpire, however, would be a complete and tragic misfire, as the terrorists, and their leader (Franco Nero), leave their mark on history, committing the unthinkable.
The Munich massacre was a hand grenade, tossed into the already volatile situation of the Middle East crises that characterized the 1970s. What Black September carried out was nothing short of barbaric (spoiler for the unknowing: ambushed at a helipad by the German authorities, the terrorists murder the hostages, killing them while they sit bound and helpless) and this film doesn't pull any punches.
There is no question who the bad guys here in this film: it is the terrorists who are the scum, and while director William Graham bequeaths a healthy amount of screen time to Franco Nero's leader to talk about his mission and his cause, by the film's end there is no moral equivalence. I don't know if a movie like this could be made today.
21 Hours at Munich manages to sidestep much of the land-war controversy by focusing solely on the day in question. In that way, the film doesn't get muddied up with the relentless back-and-forth that has raged since Israel's inception. As I said, the terrorists are given a voice to what they hope to accomplish, but whatever they have to say is always tempered by the fact they are holding innocents at gunpoint, blood on their hands as it is.
Whatever your stance on the provocative, omnipresent issue of Israel and Palestine, it must be acknowledged that what Black September did in 1972 is reprehensible. Or maybe I'm going to get my inbox flooded with counterarguments. Whatever. This film is primarily a suspense thriller informed by real events, and, as a movie, it works.
21 Hours at Munich isn't the slam-bang shoot 'em-up populated by an assault of overblown set pieces most of us have come to expect from our terrorist movies (John McClane is MIA), but as a serious work of suspense, the flick's got it going on.
Solid performances anchor the film, with Nero and Holden the centerpieces. These two have some face-time later in the proceedings, as the negotiation timetable draws ever tighter, but they do their best stuff away from each other, in their own elements. Holden's chief of police is intent on defusing the situation, all too aware of what the bitter irony of endangered Jews in Germany means ("The ghosts of six million Jews has come back to haunt us.") And Nero's heavy is not just a paper-thin bad guy; he's bad no doubt, but his horrific deeds are grounded in an ideology—which Nero articulates well—no matter how twisted it might be.
The negotiating builds up to the climax, which is a scorcher. I knew what was coming, but the payoff is still unnerving. While not explicitly violent, Black September's final actions are brutal and filmed with great tension infused within. And if you were unsure of where the filmmakers stood on the debacle, the closing voiceover extinguishes any doubt.
There is no mention made of the supposed assassinations that would follow in response to the attacks, and don't expect a huge amount of historical context for the crisis. This movie accomplishes what it sets out to do—faithfully chronicling one of the all-time worst displays of humanity that ever played out on the world stage—and does it well.
Sony has delivered a bare treatment, though the 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is surprisingly solid. Colors are sound and the details are sharp, considering its age. No extras.
This is a chilling retelling of a chilling event. If this stuff interests you, check it out.
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