There once was a time when we believed the best about the Olympics, when the notion of achieving peace and brotherhood through athletic competition, though quaint and naive on its face, was the guiding spirit behind why we watched the quadrennial global festival of sports.
But despite the best efforts of some to wave it away, the smell of politics always wafted through the Olympics, from the 1936 Summer Games when Adolf Hitler paraded his views of Aryan supremacy across the world stage, to Mexico City in 1968, when sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised their gloved fists.
"One Day in September" recounts the moment 28 years ago when the curtain between Olympic myth and reality was blown away completely, and where, as ABC sportscaster Jim McKay said, "Our worst fears have been realized." An alternately touching and harrowing documentary, "One Day" recounts the attack during the 1972 Summer Games in Munich, where 11 Israeli athletes and coaches were killed. (The film, which took 2 1/2 years to complete, previously had a limited theatrical release and won a richly deserved Oscar this year for best documentary film.)
The 90-minute film moves between a narrative of Sept. 5, 1972 - the day eight Palestinian terrorists entered the Olympic Village, captured a group of Israeli weightlifters and fencers and held them for more than 24 hours - and the aftermath.
Producer Arthur Cohn and director Kevin Macdonald brilliantly combine original interviews with German and Israeli officials and the families of the hostages.
Interviews with the son and daughter of two of the athletes who were killed and with Ankie Spitzer, who had been married to a fencing coach for only 15 months when the incident took place, give the film its emotional underpinning, but are never exploited. In one moment, Spitzer recalls her fear when her husband, Andre, a Jew, walked up to greet a group of athletes from Lebanon, a nation at war with Israel at that time.
"He said, 'Ankie, that's exactly what the Olympics are all about. I can go to them. I can talk to them,'" said Spitzer.
In addition, Macdonald and Cohn blend archival photos and footage from 1972, including ABC's coverage with McKay, whose understated but poignant "They're all gone" statement after the hostages had been killed made him a revered television figure.
The film, narrated evenly by Michael Douglas, raises a number of troubling questions, including:
Why was security so lax around the village?
Why was the German government unable to formulate an effective plan to rescue the hostages?
Why were the Germans slow to allow the Israelis to get involved in the rescue?
Why did the International Olympic Committee refuse to acknowledge what was happening by suspending the Games?
Remarkably, Cohn and Macdonald managed to locate Jamil Al-Gashey, the lone surviving terrorist, who has been in hiding in Africa for more than 25 years and is photographed in shadow.
Al-Gashey's bloodless and matter-of-fact recounting of the planning, preparation and execution of the kidnapping, including the overt assistance of East German competitors and the unwitting support of drunken American athletes who helped the Palestinians get into the village, is at once fascinating and frightening, as is the whole of the film.
With the Sydney Games beginning this week, "One Day in September," which airs just once on HBO before returning to theaters, is a necessary trip back to the time when our Olympic innocence was lost.
'One Day in September'
When: 8 tonight
In brief: A touching, harrowing documentary about the slaughter of 11 Israeli Olympic athletes in 1972.