There has never been a motion picture adventure like...
What if your worst fear was about to come true? That's right, what if a poorly funded Palestinian terrorist group teamed up with a disgruntled Vietnam ex-P.O.W. and conspired to pilot a blimp packed with plastic explosives and 225,000 rifle darts onto the field at the Super Bowl, killing everyone in attendance? Yes, long before "Sudden Death" and "The Sum Of All Fears", this horrific nightmare scenario was the subject of a terrifying 1977 thriller starring Bruce Dern and Robert Shaw, based on the book by Thomas Harris.
As the story begins, members of the outlawed terrorist group Black September are meeting in Beirut to finalize plans for a strike on American soil. The details are kept shady... we know only that a woman (Marthe Keller, "Marathon Man"), later identified as Dahlia Iyad, seems to be in charge of the operation, and that she is manipulating a certain American to do the bidding of the group. Dahlia makes the standard audio recording of terrorist dogma and rhetoric, then decides to take a shower. While in the shower, Major Kabakov (Robert Shaw, "Jaws") leads an Israeli attack on the Black September compound with machine guns and hastily-assembled time bombs. Everyone in the house is killed... except Dahlia.
Dahlia makes it to America, where she meets up with Michael Lander (Bruce Dern, "Coming Home"), a ex-P.O.W. of the Vietnam War and recipient of multiple commendations, including the Silver Star. Lander is employed as a pilot for the Good Year Blimp, but in his spare time he enjoys molding plastic explosives and spouting epitaphs about how the government fucked him. The two set out to put their plan into action, but Major Kabakov is hot on their trail... kinda.
You'd have thought from the movie poster, the trailer, and the description on the back of the DVD that a majority of "Black Sunday" takes place at a football stadium. And you'd be wrong. The majority of the film takes place in random areas of the United States, as Dahlia and Lander assemble the equipment needed for their attack, then clumsily attempt to assassinate anyone with any knowledge of it. Kabakov in the meantime cleans up their sloppy seconds, interrogating at gunpoint those that are left alive. Kabakov is a ruthless Israeli operative, known by his men as "The Final Solution" (I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide whether it was unintentional or sarcastic on the part of the screenwriters to use that particular nickname for an Israeli), but his methods produce results. While the security forces of the United States take a decidedly laissez-faire attitude towards the threat of terrorism, Kabakov brilliantly makes the logical leap that the Good Year Blimp is the linchpin in the terrorist attack (although his first suspicion is that they'll detonate a bomb using the electrostatic charge from the stadium lights as a fuse).
The only question is... can Kabakov stop the blimp before it's too late? Will Dahlia and Lander become martyrs for their poorly explained cause? Why don't they just shoot the fucking thing down (the reasoning used in the film is absolutely comical)? And can the Cowboys upset the Steelers and win Super Bowl X?
Director John Frankenheimer ("The Manchurian Candidate", "Ronin") moves the story along at a very deliberate, almost plodding pace, taking a film that should have clocked in at between 90 and 100 minutes and stretching it into two-and-a-half hours. He almost makes it a point to keep the audience absolutely clueless in an attempt to build suspense. The characters drop clues here and there as to the terrorists' fiendish plot, and it's the audience's job to piece them together. This sort of thing worked well in a film like "No Way Out", where the viewer wonders exactly who the Russian operative is. Frankenheimer directs "Black Sunday" as though the audience has to guess what the big terrorist plot is. There's just one problem: the movie poster features a huge fucking blimp towering over the Super Bowl. Kinda kills any suspense Frankie was trying to build up, no?
Character development is next to nil, as all of the minor characters are murdered or remain relatively faceless. We know almost nothing of Kobakov except that he's an Israeli operative. Everything we learn about Dahlia comes from an intelligence file, and Keller does very little on her own to develop her character. There's never any determination behind her desires; it's simply not believable that she'd martyr herself for this cause.
The exception is Dern, who brings surprising depth to what could have easily become a one-dimensional character. He's a war hero, but his stint in the camps had its effect. His wife left him a month after he returned home, and he doesn't see his kids. He still loves his family and he's proud of his medals, dresses up in his navy blues, and becomes angry when Dahlia doesn't understand the importance of the Silver Star. At the same time, he hates them all, the country and family he feels betrayed him and ruined his life. He suffers from breakdowns, including a very uncomfortable one triggered when he's replaced as blimp pilot by a guy the network likes better. "I wanted to give them something to remember me by! They'd be talking about this for the next 5,000 years!" he cries, just before collapsing into a sobbing human heap.
He is, in a word, insane. But not insane in a cackling, megalomaniacal John-Travolta-in-Battlefield-Earth way. You get the sense that he'd probably be better off if the V.A. didn't shift his case from shrink to shrink, or make him take a number when he came in for an appointment.
As for the sound and picture, the film is standard for its era, and isn't much improved on the DVD. The film is gritty, the sound underwhelming, but "Black Sunday" has one thing going for it: rather than fill a stadium with a bunch of extras, it was actually filmed during the Super Bowl. As you see characters in the film running up and down the sidelines or through the crowd, the football game going on is actually Super Bowl X. Of course, the climactic blimp scene wasn't filmed during the Super Bowl (to avoid spooking the shit out of those in attendance), but it's pretty cool seeing Bradshaw complete a pass to Lynn Swann while Kabakov races after the production truck.
Final thoughts: Upon sitting down to watch "Black Sunday", I was hoping for one of two things: (1) it would end up as the kind of 70's film that makes you wonder why no one ever talks about it ("Dog Day Afternoon"), or (2) it would end up as the kind of 70's film that makes you wonder why everyone involved with wasn't fired and blacklisted from any further Hollywood productions ("Death Race 2000"). In the end, "Black Sunday" delivers only unbridled mediocrity, as Dern is the only one who seems to care about delivering the goods. Still, his performance, and the novelty of a gigantic slow-moving harbinger of death make this film nearly worth the $5.98 my dad paid for it at B.J.'s Wholesale.