Reviewed Jun 21, 2012
Robert Cettl’s review:
Director John Frankenheimer was noted for his exceptional political thrillers of the 1960s, with The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May amongst them. His triumphant 1970s thriller Black Sunday was a return to a political context, here in the form of a chilling tale of the threat posed to an unprepared USA by Palestinian terrorism. Indeed, this film effectively marked the beginning of the American cinema of terrorism, a developmental stage bookended by the recent release of The Sum of All Fears, which featured a similar premise of terrorists targeting a major sporting event. Most films that sought to explore terrorism as a global phenomenon in all its implications are indeed found between the releases of these two movies. However, although industry insiders expected Black Sunday to be a runaway box-office hit, the film performed disappointingly. Frankenheimer attributes this to the earlier release that year of another film centered around a football stadium, the sniper melodrama Two Minute Warning, and to the declining popularity of the 1970s disaster movie. Although Black Sunday gains immeasurably in retrospect since the events of 9/11, it was the start of a troubled period for the director, who after the silly but popular monster movie Prophecy entered the creative doldrums of the 1980s and alcoholism. When he finally recovered, it was in part with a return to terrorist themes in Year of the Gun.
Black Sunday concerns a plot by the Palestinian terrorist organization Black September (responsible for some of the real-life spectacular acts of terrorism in the 1970s) to detonate a bomb within the United States. Their stated intent is to make America share in the suffering of the Palestinian people as a result of the US’ support of Israel. Their operative in the US (Marthe Keller) has secured the assistance of a disturbed Vietnam veteran (Bruce Dern) whose feelings of disaffection for his country’s treatment of him have been channeled into vengeful rather than ideological terrorism. Dern is employed as a pilot on the Goodyear Blimp, and it is now the end of the NFL season. On their trail is an Israeli Secret Service agent (Robert Shaw) who joins forces with American intelligence operatives (led by Fritz Weaver) to stop the plot. Keller has arranged for explosives to be smuggled into the country by ship. Dern and Keller pick up the explosives and evade the Coast Guard. When Shaw is injured and hospitalized, the incident is broadcast on the news, alerting Keller. Shaw renews his pursuit with a newfound but brutal dedication (much to the dismay of the more civil rights conscious Weaver). Shaw learns of the target – the upcoming Superbowl – and urges it be cancelled. When this does not happen he tries to take precautions though is unaware that Dern intends to fly the blimp into the stadium and detonate a bomb.
In terms of terrorist cinema, Black Sunday is a seminal work, the first film to acknowledge that suicide bombers would be willing to strike targets within the USA and that the crisis in the Middle East as rooted in the Israeli / Palestinian conflict is bound to spill over into the US and can thus no longer be ignored. There is hence much urgency to the Israeli agents as they seek to protect and even educate their rather ignorant benefactor about the dangers posed by the rise of international terrorism, which had escalated by the late 1970s. Significantly, it is the Israeli agents who are most in touch with the threat, aware of the terrorists’ inhumane single-mindedness but themselves similarly obsessive in response. It is also implied that US investigators are hamstrung by the very human rights legislation that makes their country so free: hence it is by intimidation and threat that Shaw achieves results – terrorism must be stopped by force, for it will only escalate of its own accord. These themes ensure that Black Sunday remains provocatively relevant but what is perhaps just as remarkable is director Frankenheimer’s ability to make his points about an unprepared America within a tight thriller format that ambiguously manipulates audiences into wanting to see the promised explosion – such was the charge leveled against the film by some critics at the time of its release by many who thus considered it a dubious entertainment.
Dern here carries the voice of American post-Vietnam disaffection to psychotic lengths, the film implying that such psychologically vulnerable Americans can be harnessed by external terrorist influences. But Dern’s motives are personal, hence he admits that he just wanted to give America something to remember him by (perhaps even to control the nation’s fate just as it has dismissed his). This is contrasted to the pro-Palestinian ideological rationale expressed by Keller (who is revealed to be a product of refugee camps). The motivational split between the two characters allows Frankenheimer to explore, compare and contrast two facets of terrorism – fanatical ideological devotion and psychotic self-aggrandizement. The latter can attach itself to any instance of the former. As horrible as the Black September movement is, the film does not shirk from raising the quagmire of cause and effect responsibility in the Israeli-Arab struggle, not to excuse terrorism but to suggest that the root causes are not clear cut. The film is full of irony and even cynicism – hence the idea that the Superbowl will not be cancelled because of a terrorist threat, but also that the President should not be allowed to attend the event, just in case. Certainly, the film depicts a nation unaware of the threat that terrorism poses to it. Presciently, it posits this terrorist threat in the Middle East (a theme that the 9-11 era The Sum of All Fears ironically decided to avoid).