Sunday, February 01, 2015

Penny Thoughts ‘15—Black Sunday (1977) ***

R, 143 min.
Director: John Frankenheimer
Writers: Ernest Lehman, Kenneth Ross, Ivan Moffat, Thomas Harris (novel)
Starring: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Steven Keats, Bekim Fehmiu, Michael V. Gazzo, William Daniels, Walter Gotell, Victor Campos, Joseph Robbie, Robert Wussler, Pat Summerall, Tom Brookshier

Perhaps the most powerful element of John Frankenheimer’s 1977 thriller “Black Sunday” today is how topical it remains. On this Super Bowl Sunday, I look back at the movie based on Thomas Harris’s novel inspired by the harrowing events of the 1972 Munich Olympic Games, during which members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September took Israeli athletes hostage in a situation that ended in a confrontation in which all the hostages were killed. Harris’s novel imagined a new plot that saw Black September attacking the U.S. during another sporting event—the Super Bowl—with much a grander massacre plot.

Frankenheimer, known for politically fueled thrillers such as the original “The Manchurian Candidate”, realized Harris’s vision on screen with the full co-operation of the NFL, which allowed the production to film at Super Bowl X in 1976. The fact that this contest included the marquee Super Bowl match-up of the 70s Super Bowls— the Dallas Cowboys vs. the Pittsburgh Steelers—was doubly advantageous for the filmmakers. With a plot that involved a disgruntled U.S. Vietnam War pilot arming the Goodyear blimp with an extremely destructive device, Goodyear’s co-operation was also a key element in making the movie successful.

Focusing on a Mossad agent’s attempts to thwart the attack, it wouldn’t take much in terms of changes to modernize this movie for today’s political atmosphere. Switch out the Palestinians for Al-Qaeda operatives or even ISIL and the Super Bowl target would still seem plausible. The movie is a little long for today’s audiences, who would appreciate more tightened action and American heroes; however, it would still work just as effectively.

Robert Shaw makes for a no nonsense hero and Bruce Dern is a manic villain. It would be easier to see a number of current actors, such as George Clooney, in the Shaw role. Dern’s replacement would require a little more imagination. Maybe someone as unlikely as Jim Carrey or Jackie Earl Haley would make for a good Iraq War vet looking for some vindication having been turned against his country, ala “Homeland”. If Hollywood isn’t thinking of remaking this one, perhaps they should. Of course, they couldn’t use the blimp anymore. Maybe Katy Perry’s bra could hold the device.

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