Cinema: Waiting for the Blimp

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As images go, you can't beat it: the Goodyear blimp suddenly looming large and low—much too low—over the Orange Bowl. To turn that benign and stately symbol of the country in a holiday mood into an instrument of unpredictable menace is a stroke of Pop-cult genius. If the blimp can run amuck, even in fantasy, what is there left that we can rely on?

Very little—as one horrid event after another has proved in the past two decades—except possibly Director Frankenheimer's skill at building action sequences like the foul-up of the Super Bowl circus, which is the climax of Black Sunday. He has always been at his best when a script presents large technical challenges: the tight spaces of Birdman of Alcatraz, the wild railroad chase in The Train, the assassination attempt at a political convention in The Manchurian Candidate, to name the best of them all. Here he has more and perhaps richer elements than ever to play with.

At ground level, there are the packed stands, the crunchy action of the game itself, the President in his box, the security people aware that something bad is supposed to happen but not sure what form it will take. In the sky there is nutsy Bruce Dern at the controls of the blimp. He has rigged it with 100,000 steel darts, which, if detonated at just the right moment, can wipe out everybody in the stadium, down to the last pompon girl. With him is Marthe Keller, his mistress and representative of Black September, the Arab terrorist organization that is financing his attempt to turn homicidal fantasy into reality. Coming on fast is Robert Shaw, Israeli counterterrorist, who must shinny down a rope from a helicopter, attach a skyhook to the blimp and tow it away from the stadium before Dern sets off his destruction.

It is a dandy half-hour, as well orchestrated an action sequence as you are likely to see, with the director drawing a nice but not overstated analogy between the meaningless violence of the game itself and the larger, equally meaningless violence impending from above. He is not saying the one begets the other, merely that there is something besides coincidence in their juxtaposition.

Still, we are a long time arriving at the good stuff. Like the bestseller on which it was based, Black Sunday has aspirations toward being a grand-scale detective story. From the start, the Israelis and U.S. officials know that some big game is afoot, and they keep plodding along two or three steps behind Mastermind Keller (whose heavy German accent requires a great deal of unpersuasive explanation if she is to be passed off as an Arab) and her weird companion. Along the way Dern, who had broken down trying to make the transition from North Vietnamese prison camp to civilian status in the U.S., gets to do some nice psychopathic bits. Shaw has some weary and aging hunter routines on which to flex his thespian muscles. But the early action sequences have the feel of finger exercises, warm-ups for the big one to come, while the attempts to probe the psychology of the drama's leading figures are totally without surprise or subtlety.

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