A notorious terrorist action at the 1972 Olympics is re-recreated in this serviceable TV movie, which conveys a handful of important geopolitical nuances. Hampered by miscast leading actors and underwhelming dramaturgy, the picture is, predictably, most arresting during its opening and closing moments—the bloody siege on the Israeli compound in the Olympic village and, later, the tragic standoff between authorities and terrorists at a German airport. In between these vivid docudrama sequences, 21 Hours at Munich presents myriad scenes of political wrangling and tense negotiations. Had the acting and writing been more impassioned, the picture could have become a crucial dramatization of an intense moment in world relations; as is, the movie tastefully avoids pure sensationalism but gets stuck in flat recitations of well-known events.
As directed by efficient TV helmer William A. Graham, from a script co-written by venerable Hollywood lefty Howard Fast, 21 Hours at Munich begins with a newsreel montage setting the uplifting mood of the Olympiad. Then the story proper begins with Palestinian terrorists led by Issa (Franco Nero) taking nearly a dozen Israeli athletes hostage. The filmmakers wisely eschew full-on melodrama during this sequence, focusing on the relentlessness of the attackers and the stalwart resistance of the Israelis. Next, viewers are introduced to Munich Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber (William Holden), and the haggling between various factions begins. There’s some deeply interesting content buried in the morass of the film’s middle section, including ugly buck-passing by political operators who don’t want to end up with Jewish blood on their hands if the situation deteriorates. Yet Issa and Schreiber remain the central figures—and, unfortunately, neither role is performed especially well.
Italian-born Nero’s only qualifications for playing an Arab extremist seem to be abundant body hair and wide-eyed intensity; he’s creepy but a bit cartoonish. Holden’s casting as a German cop represents an even bigger stretch. Although Holden commands the screen effortlessly with his innate charisma and precise timing, the veteran star’s presence represents an obvious (and pandering) attempt to make this story palatable to U.S. viewers. (The supporting cast is not impressive, with Shirley Knight delivering a particularly lifeless performance as a fraulein who gets caught up in the drama.) Still, 21 Hours at Munich gets points for trying to show events the way they happened—or, in cases where imagination was required, the way they might have happened, Plus, the fact that the picture was shot on many of the locations where the events actually took place lends a certain gravitas.
21 Hours at Munich: FUNKY