It’s hard to imagine that after being subjected to decades of Hollywood blockbuster action movies―filled with overblown stunts, cheesy Schwarzeneggaresque one-liners and cartoonishly unrealistic premises―one could revisit a 1977 film like Black Sunday without rolling their eyes. Yet, the climactic final 30 minutes of Black Sunday are genuinely gripping. As with his earlier films like Grand Prix, director John Frankenheimer’s preoccupation with the “over the top” action spectacle serves as somewhat of an unnecessary distraction but is executed with such precision that it’s tolerably admirable. The performances are ultimately what make the film so engaging though, particularly in the case of Bruce Dern, whose character (a stereotypically crazed Vietnam vet/former POW), emerges as a kind of anti-hero. Marthe Keller, who plays the fanatically determined Palestinian militant Dahlia Iyad, puts on a memorable show as well. In terms of the storyline, Black Sunday has aged rather “well.” In the post-9/11 US, a meticulously elaborate terrorist plot like the one presented in Black Sunday no longer seems as far-fetched as it may have at the time of the film’s release. Indeed, we’ve now experienced an attack on this scale. Contemporary viewers (particularly those of the nationalist persuasion) will recognize that the underlying political metaphors and social dynamics―whether intentional or not―are perhaps even more prescient now.
Dahlia Iyad, an operative from the Palestinian organization known as Black September, recruits an embittered and mentally unstable Vietnam veteran, Michael Lander (played by Bruce Dern) into an ambitiously daring terrorist plot involving the Goodyear Blimp at the Super Bowl. Lander, a highly decorated former naval pilot, spent years as a POW in Vietnam and returned home only to be court martialed by the military and discover his wife had left him. Lander is in love with Dahlia, who controls and psychologically manipulates him but also gives him a renewed sense of purpose. As Dahlia and Iyad methodically take steps to carry out the attack, they are pursued by Mossad agent David Kabakov (played by Robert Shaw) as well as the FBI. The film culminates in an epic, pre-cgi blimp chase finale, where Dahlia and Lander “succeed” in detonating their device but are killed by Kabakov in the process. Ultimately, the blimp is towed away by helicopter just moments before the explosion and fails to inflict any casualties.
In an American film with an (ethnically) Jewish director, a Jewish producer and at least one Jewish screenwriter, (though the original novel was written by Thomas Harris) it would be foolish not to expect a heavy bias toward the Israeli point of view. I have to admit though that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is treated more evenhandedly than I anticipated, at least compared to the sort of shamelessly one-sided propaganda we are used to seeing in mainstream movies today. Black Sunday at least entertains the idea that there are two sides with legitimate grievances. I say this because I found myself empathizing more with Lander (and to a lesser degree Dahlia) than the Israeli and federal counterparts on the other side. I’m sure that’s not entirely by accident, but much of it owes to Dern’s humanizingly powerful performance, which manages to transcend the film’s intended ideological framing.
Even though it is stated that he is the one who initially approached her organization, Lander seems to have been chosen by Dahlia in part because he is resentful toward the American government, but also because his experience as a prisoner of war in Vietnam demonstrated that he is susceptible to brainwashing (at the beginning of the film, old footage of him reciting North Vietnamese propaganda is shown). While the cold and relentlessly mission-focused Dahlia may not appear to genuinely reciprocate Lander’s romantic feelings for her, over the course of their time together, his creatively expressed love for her breaks through her icy veneer, unearthing a softer, vulnerable side of herself she may not have revealed to anyone. When they are sitting in their hotel room on the night before the Super Bowl, he tells her he loves her. She doesn’t say anything in response but instead bursts into tears. The fact that she doesn’t simply tell him she loves him indicates that she is no longer in manipulation mode, and she really does care about him on some level. She is also the one person left in Lander’s life who seems to recognize that he is truly gifted.
In 1977, the two of them my have seemed like an unlikely pairing, but these days it is not at all uncommon to see nationalists and various other flavors of disillusioned American dissidents making common cause with Palestinians, Persians, Syrians and other nationalities which have found themselves at odds with intrusive American interventionism. Of course, this hasn’t taken the form of material/physical support like in the movie but merely rhetorical, symbolic expressions of solidarity and mutual respect.
Lander expresses a disdain for the cheering masses in the stands. We’re made to believe that he hates them because they’re “happy” and he isn’t, but that line of reasoning is on par with kindergarten level Bushisms like “the terrorists hate us because we’re free.” What Lander and the thousands of stadium-goers actually have in common is that both are used as cannon fodder in conflicts and schemes that are not in their interests. What distinguishes them is that the normie football fans are oblivious to the exploitative machinations playing out behind the scenes, while Lander has become—at least to a degree—aware of how his country has sold him out. Though he is largely motivated by vengeance, part of his anger is derived from the guilt of knowing that he was fooled into fighting for an America that he once believed had his best interests at heart. In the smiling patriotic crowd, he sees a former part of himself that he is now ashamed of. At times his character resembles more of a tortured artist than a soldier. In a particularly disturbing scene where they are testing the camera weapon in a barn/hangar (callously killing an innocent man in the process), Lander marvels at the perfectly symmetrical holes left by the flechette darts like an artist admiring his latest masterpiece. This scene could also be viewed as a subtle commentary on mass media’s commodified glorification of the violent spectacle as entertainment (note that this was also an underlying theme in Grand Prix).
The relationship between the FBI and the Israeli agents as they are pursuing the suspects serves as a microcosm for the broader dynamic that exists between America and Israel. FBI agent Sam Corley (played by Fritz Weaver) tells Kabakov that as long as they’re in America, the Israelis must play by the USA’s rules. However, the Israelis basically ignore the order and use their own harsh methods anyway. It soon becomes pretty clear who calls the shots. Corley relents to the will of Kabakov more often than not, looking more like a subordinate sidekick than a charismatic secret agent.
I mentioned near the beginning of this essay that I felt that Black Sunday has aged well. If the America of the 1970s took its most patriotic nationals for granted, suffice to say that today’s loyal citizens are treated with utter contempt. Retroactively determined to be symbols of “whiteness,” statues of the most heroic figures in American history are being defaced and torn down. Paradoxically, the American government endorses these actions, while vilifying anyone who dares to even vocally defend the mere concept of America as a sovereign nation state. So as the Goodyear Blimp approaches the stadium, we find ourselves reluctantly rooting for Lander and Dahlia to succeed―not because we condone their actions or salivate at the prospect of bloodshed―but because we identify with their struggle. They have overcome such long odds and outwitted such overwhelmingly powerful forces, that at the very least, they have earned a bit of respect. Professional sports, for their part, have long since been transformed from escapist entertainment activities and celebrations of national pastime, to just another politicized vehicle for subversive propaganda and ideological indoctrination. Thus, we no longer perceive the impending act of terror targeting the Super Bowl as a strike at the heart of America but as an attack directed at something alien which we have become less invested in (and this is still only a movie).
The ending of the film is a bit of a copout, but let’s face it, there was no way a mainstream movie like this was going to end by allowing such a horrifying attack to take place (though in the final suspenseful moments it actually seemed as though it might.) Too little too late, the tacked on conclusion feels arbitrary and unconvincing. By this stage, Lander has displayed such incredible tenacity and resourcefulness, that when he woundedly staggers through the cockpit―somehow managing to summon just enough residual resolve to successfully light the fuse―we know who has really won.