21 Hours At Munich plays and sounds like the made for TV movie it is. It is the story of the taking of Israeli athletes as hostages during the 1972 Munich Olympics and the events that followed. Not being well versed in the events myself, 21 Hours At Munich seems pretty even-handed and fair.
Weirdly enough, 21 Hours At Munich opens with a Wide World Of Sports like montage of the opening ceremonies and various athletes in competition before cutting to the Israeli athletes’ shuttle bus arriving at the Olympic village after a day of competitions. That night, at 4:09 A.M. Palestinian terrorists climb a fence around the basically unguarded village (as will an Israeli coach later on), enter the athletes’ residence and take them hostages. One of the athletes raises the alarm, as will a couple of other athletes later on when they see armed men on campus.
Interestingly enough, the Munich Chief of Police, played by William Holden, is only notified an hour and twenty minutes after the events began. It is hard to decide if this is a comment by director William A. Graham or teleplay authors Edward Hume and Howard Fast. In fact, there are many moments where the viewer is trying to figure out if these actual events do not hide something else as commentary. Not that there is a conspiracy theory around 21 Hours At Munich, but some points of contention, like the fact the games continued that day even though Israeli athletes were being held hostage, are addressed succinctly (basically, the games continued because the Munich Chief of Police did not want a crowd gathering on the Olympic village street and create more security problems). Still, Olympic head honcho Avery Brundage and the mayor of Munich to not come out as particularly compassionate human beings.
An interesting character is Annaliese Graese who, for a while, plays go-between between Issa, the head of the terrorists, and the German authorities. She does everything she can to humanize both Issa and the hostages, even suggesting that Issa let the hostages go and get the sympathy of the world that way.
Extension after extension is given by Fedayeen leader Issa (played somewhat ambivalently by Franco Nero) in his quest to have 236 political prisoners freed from Israeli jails. He finally agrees to fly the hostages to Egypt where he will free them in exchange for the political prisoners. It is often mentioned that Issa does not really wish to kill the Israelis, especially on German soil, because that would definitely make his movement look bad to the entire world.
After Golda Meir tells the German government this is in their hands and no deal will be made and after the Egyptian Prime Minister hangs up on Willi Brandt (played by Richard Basehart) when he asks permission to send the plane to Cairo, Holden decides to play his hand at a local airport when terrorists and hostages will be transferred to the plane. A general of some kind tells him he is not really impressed by this plan and would prefer an attack in the village itself. Holden agrees that it is not the best of plans but the best he could come up with. Issa forces Holden’s hand and the airport scenario when he sees through some of the traps the chief of police and the German authorities have set up for him.
It is interesting to note that in 21 Hours At Munich, the German authorities only accept the idea of the Israeli athlete hostages leaving Germany if they agree to it. One of the athletes says, “One way or another, we are dead men.” It is also interesting to see that the reason terrorists and hostages could not go to the airport by bus was that there were too many protestors in the streets of Munich who, the chief of police feared, would think nothing of attacking the bus to free the hostages.In the end, the German plan of attack at the airport fails miserably.