I can tell you up front that "21 Hours at Munich" is a much more detailed look at that Olympic massacre in 1972 than you will find in Steven Spielberg's film "Munich." In point of fact, Spielberg is not telling the story of what happened on September 5, 1972 in his film but exploring its aftermath. This made for television movie aired in 1976 (in November, so it was after the Montreal Summer Olympics that year). The release of the film two decades later was certainly motivated by the impending release of Spielberg's Oscar nominated film, but since it is an earnest dramatization of the events of that day, it will make an appropriate counterpart to the theatrical film.
The screenplay by Howard Fast (writer of the novel "Spartacus") and Edward Hume ("The Day After") is based on Serge Groussard's book "The Blood of Israel and focuses on what happened in Munich, part of what was then West Germany, that day in September when a group of Palestinian terrorists calling themselves Black September invaded the dormitory rooms of the Israeli athletes, killing two of them and taking another nine hostage. Issa (Franco Nero), the leader of the terrorists, demands the release of 250 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel, but Prime Minister Golda Meir (Else Quecke) flatly refused to deal with the terrorists. This left it to the German government to try and rescue the hostages. Chief of Police Manfred Schreiber (William Holden) became the point man for their efforts, although Chancellor Willy Brandt (Richard Basehart) and Interior Minister Bruno Merk (Noel Willman) are involved in the fatal decisions as the lives of Jewish men are once again in the hands of the German government, this time with the whole world watching. Having Holden take the lead role certainly invests the German effort with a level of competence, but this is not a story where the best intentions come to mean anything in the end.
If you were alive in 1972 then you probably still have a vivid memory of learning from ABC's sports anchor Jim McKay that despite early reports to the contrary all of the hostages were killed. So it is given that when you watch this television movie that you know what is going to happen in the end. At the time of the actual 21 hours of hostage drama we were only getting bits and pieces of what was actually happening, so "21 Hours at Munich" puts together the details in a vivid fashion. But there is also a sense in which we watch this film trying to pick the key moments where things could have been different and all these deaths avoided. I saw "Munich" today, and the first preview was for "Flight 93," about the plane that crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11th. I saw a television movie about the flight on cable last week and I found myself doing the same thing I did with "21 Hours at Munich," trying to find a moment when if the passengers had acted the outcome might have been different (they waited until the plane was over rural country before making their move, sealing their fates while saving others, which is certainly their legacy).
A film that shows a group of men with their hands and feet tied being murdered by other men with machine guns and grenades obviously takes sides. The film limits itself to this 21-hour period without getting into the politics that came before or after it. Director William A. Graham ("Guyana Tragedy: The Story of Jim Jones") also takes sides by allow Issa to explain the goals and objectives of his group and people to the point that they become irrelevant because we can no longer get past the obvious fact that he and the other members of Black September are holding guns on hostages. Then again, knowing that all of the hostages will be dead effectively poisons the pool. But ultimately, "21 Hours at Munich" is a rather clinical record of what happened at that time and place, leaving the rhetoric and public debate to other films and other venues.