February 23, 2013

BLACK SUNDAY: Reality Sucks

Starring Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Bekin Fehmiu, Steven Keats, Michael V. Gazzo. Directed by John Frankenheimer. (1977, 143 min).

So I was watching the Super Bowl one year, a little pissed that the Ravens were winning, when the lights in the Superdome went out. It stopped the game for about a half hour, meaning we had to sit through a lot more commercials than usual. But initially, a small part of me briefly wondered, Oh shit, I hope this isn’t another terror attack.

Remember the good ol' days before 9/11, when that stuff never crossed our minds and terrorists were simply Hollywood's go-to bad guys after the Russians outlived their usefulness? Without terrorists, we wouldn't have had such mindless fun as Back to the Future, Air Force One, True Lies and Nighthawks. Although Black Sunday took a potential terrorist threat on American soil far more seriously than most, it was promoted as yet-another 70's disaster movie. That's what got me to go see it, anyway. Hell, I even bought Thomas Harris’ original novel because the cover showed a blimp crashing into a stadium, terrified spectators fleeing in panic.

Since it was R-rated, I had to sneak into the movie at the Southgate Quad. I emerged two-and-a-half-hours later thinking it sucked. Where were the explosions, burning bodies and massive scenes of destruction? Even the heavily-hyped, climactic blimp assault on the Super Bowl was an effects-shitty let-down compared to the non-stop death and mayhem in The Towering Inferno. I was a kid who didn’t give a rat’s ass about terrorist plots or psychologically-unstable war veterans. I just wanted some spectacle.

"Damn...in Pittsburgh we only have to worry
 about zombies."

Black Sunday isn't a disaster movie, of course, and once I got over the truly inept special effects at the climax, I eventually had to admit the overall story was really great (and sadly prophetic). Bruce Dern (the 70's king of the on-screen looneys) plays Michael Lander, an unstable Vietnam veteran who now pilots blimps at sports events. He's got serious issues with damn-near everybody, and has the perfect chance to strike back with the help of Dahlia (Marthe Keller), a member of a Mid-East terrorist group, Black September. Together they devise a plan to attack the 80,000 fans at the upcoming Super Bowl by piloting a blimp into the stadium and using explosives to launch hundreds of thousands of rifle darts. Trying to prevent the disaster is Major Kabakov (Robert Shaw), an Israeli anti-terrorism expert who's nearly as ruthless as those he hunts down. Most of the film cuts back and forth between the terrorists putting their plan in motion, and Kabakov tracking them down, culminating in a climactic showdown in Florida on Super Bowl Sunday.

Back in 1977, the idea of terrorists attacking America on the holiest of holidays was inconceivable. I doubt most Americans seriously thought we'd ever be attacked on our own soil. Then 9/11 happened, and suddenly terrorists weren't just movie villains anymore.

Now we live in an age where the Super Bowl is a very likely terrorist target. In fact, shortly after 9/11, the US Department of Homeland Security declared the Super Bowl a National Special Security Event (NSSE), right up there with presidential inaugurations, State of the Union Addresses and major political conventions (the Academy Awards and Olympics have been designated NSSE's, too).

So when the lights went out in the Superdome this year, a terror attack was the first thing which popped into my mind, however briefly, along with this movie. I think we were all just a tad relieved to hear it was just a power surge caused by Beyonce (though her half-time show could be viewed as an act of terrorism).

There have been countless films about terrorism, but Black Sunday was the first to depict a large-scale attack on America itself. Remember, shortly after 9/11, when newscasts and documentaries showed how the terrorists had been plotting this for years, and the painstaking measures taken to infiltrate the country & coordinate their plans before carrying out the attack? That’s essentially the plot of Black Sunday, too. The difference is, in 1977, it was just thriller fodder. Not anymore, and that’s a damn shame, because the movie itself is still a lot of fun. I simply liked it a lot more when I still believed nothing like this could possibly ever happen. And worse yet, Robert Shaw ain’t around to save us anymore.

The special effects still suck, though.

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