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Movie Review

Black Sunday

MPAA Rating: R-Rating (MPAA) for unspecified reasons

Reviewed by: Brett Willis

Very Offensive
Moviemaking Quality:

Primary Audience:
Mature Teen to Adult
War, Spy, Thriller
2 hr. 23 min.
Year of Release:
USA Release:
Relevant Issues
Box Art for “Black Sunday”
Featuring: Robert Shaw, Bruce Dern, Marthe Keller, Fritz Weaver, Steven Keats, Michael V. Gazzo, William Daniels, Walter Gotell, Victor Campos, Bekim Fehmiu
Director: John Frankenheimer
Producer: Robert Evans, Alan Levine, Robert L. Rosen
Distributor: Paramount

This film, old yet timely, centers on a suicide plot to kill a large number of Americans and thereby alter U.S. foreign policy towards Israel.

Capt. Michael Lander (Bruce Dern), an American former POW in Vietnam who was forced by the North Vietnamese to confess his “war crimes” and (in his opinion) was then betrayed by the standard government counselling given to his wife, has a huge chip on his shoulder. Although he’s lost his family and is psychologically unbalanced, his military experience has landed him a job as a Goodyear Blimp pilot at NFL games. He contacts the pro-Palestinian Black September organization and offers them a plan for a colossal terrorist act at the Super Bowl. Dahlia Iyad (Marthe Keller), a young educated Palestinian who lost her home and had family members raped or killed in the wars that created the State of Israel, is sent in as Lander’s partner and control. Hot on their heels is an Israeli special forces unit, led by Maj. David Kabakov (Robert Shaw), trying to unravel the details of the plot.

In the opening sequence, Kabakov’s unit raids a terrorist HQ in Beirut; Kabakov kills Dahlia’s boyfriend, but spares her because she’s a woman (not knowing her high rank in the organization). He later regrets that oversight. Kabakov slowly gives us the backstory on his own life. His family has apparently suffered in the wars also. He says he’s been murdering for 30 years; but now he’s getting old and soft, and is able to see both sides of the story. Therefore, he’s no longer fit for his work and wants to quit. But an attempt on his life galvanizes him back into action.

Dern is perfect for his role; he’s been playing off-balance or psychopathic characters since the ’50s, and is one of very few people who shot John Wayne onscreen. Shaw is also very good; his character’s relentless pursuit of the terrorists is similar to his pursuit of the shark in “Jaws”.

The detailing is very good: we see Kabakov’s agents in the midst of a full Super Bowl stadium crowd; Pat Summerall and other personnel playing themselves; real ’70s Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers players and coaches (probably a combination of stock footage and a preplanned shoot for this film at an actual Super Bowl); even some quick glimpses of a lookalike for President Jimmy Carter. The major explosions and other violence special effects are high-quality for their era although they look cheesy now.

Content Warnings

The subject matter is very unsettling; Lander and Dahlia are committed to dying for their cause, and they kill anyone who gets in their way. Their intent is to kill as many people as possible in one final act. In the pursuit of its own objectives, Kabakov’s organization is just as ruthless as Black September. Profanity is strong, but there are no f-words. Some sex and nudity are implied, but not shown.

I’ll leave it to the viewer to decide whether this is a “good” or “bad” film in a political sense (based on what positions it takes or fails to take); and whether it, and other films like it, may have triggered copycat actions.

Similar Theme: “Sudden Death” (1995)

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