Time for the monthly switcheroo called the Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Movie Challenge, when a fellow blogger suggests a movie I’ve never seen and I return the favour.
This month’s assignment was a good terrorism thriller, Black Sunday (1977), in which a Palestinian group plots to attack Super Bowl X using a terrible device attached to the Goodyear blimp. The blimp’s daring pilot Michael (Bruce Dern) is a disturbed Vietnam vet with a death wish and a grudge, which makes him the perfect accomplice for Black September operative Dahlia (Marthe Keller). Israeli Mossad agent Kabakov (Robert Shaw) has picked up few, vague clues to a large attack coming in the U.S. in the New Year but nothing more, and so the film follows in detail both Kabakov’s investigation (with FBI help), and Dahlia and Michael’s preparations. Both sides suffer setbacks, improvise, have occasion to display their talents and motivations as they head toward the inevitable showdown, which comes in a tense and exciting action-packed spectacle wherein the blimp drifts, nearly crashes and is miraculously diverted.
An attack on this scale is chilling to contemplate, and the movie does a great job capturing that dread, the possible casualties and the grisly zeal and determination of the attackers. When Michael tests his weapon on a remote landing strip, only the gullible proprietor is killed, but the image of all those sunbeams shooting through tens of thousands of holes shot through the building–easily enough to wipe out everyone at the Super Bowl–make your hair stand on end. Dahlia is awed and horrified, but Michael practically jumps with joy at how well the thing works, and along with the rest of Dern’s unhinged, unpredictable performance, it makes for a scary picture of a monster with a cause.
For both the villains and heroes, the countdown toward the Super Bowl is long and frustrating, and the logistics of staging such an ambitious attack or trying to uncover and then stop it, seem equally impossible. But both aims become believable because we see the cracks and loopholes in the system, the errors and distractions that let one terrorist squeak through, or the nerves and impulses that almost ruin the terrorist plot. Mistakes are a big part of what makes these characters interesting and their respective quests so suspenseful. Kabakov should have killed Dahlia in that raid early in the picture, his fellow Mossad agent (Steven Keats) shouldn’t have let down his guard when he found Dahlia sneaking around a hospital disguised as a nurse, the NFL and blimp authority should have better protected the replacement pilot on Super Bowl Sunday, and so on. It goes to show how much hard work, loss, success and dumb luck go unnoticed, unappreciated by the public when an attack is foiled. Well-done adventure thriller about scares we still live with (and another opportunity for Robert Shaw to hunt a deadly monster), from director John Frankenheimer and adapted from the novel by Thomas Harris.