By John H. Foote
Dern was among the finest and most prolific actors of his generation, but early in the eighties, seemed to disappear. He gave some of the most compelling performances in the seventies, none finer than his work here as Michael J. Lander, a former Vietnam veteran being used by the Black September terrorist organization for an attack on American soil.
A former POW, held for years by the Viet Cong, Lander denounced America and was released, but was emotionally damaged by his experiences as a prisoner. Returning home, his wife divorces him, takes his children far away from him, the military forces him into psychiatric care, and seeing his vulnerability, the terrorists woo him. Seduced by Ilsa (Martha Keller) to join them, they are soon living together, the better for her to control him. Make no mistake, Lander is dangerous. He drives the Goodyear blimp for televised football games, often taking great risks in the wind. This is of course what attracts the terrorists to him. For them, Lander will build a bomb that while driving the blimp at the Super Bowl, he will crash into the stadium and detonate, killing sixty thousand plus people.
What is astounding about Dean’s performance is we see how terrifying he can be, we see the dangerous insanity, yet we also see him break down when talking about what the war did to him. Betrayed by his country and the military, he wants a chance to get even. As he weeps on the floor, he looks like a lost, frightened little child. It is heartbreaking.
The film opened to solid reviews but was in and out of theatres in three weeks. Though Paramount hope for a blockbuster, it never came.
Dern received some of the best reviews of his life and there was Best Actor Oscar talk, but by the year’s end it had dissipated. Too bad. This was the best performance of 1977 by an actor.
Black Sunday is still the greatest film made about international terrorism, and its shocking realism gave the film an alarming edge.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.