With the skies above Minneapolis abuzz with black helicopters, armed troops wandering the streets of Minnesota, bomb-sniffing dogs giving everyone the once-over, and a game-day security plan that probably includes a ban on tailgating and/or undercover snipers positioned throughout the stadium, it seems it’s time once again to pull out my Super Bowl disaster films.
Of course I do this every year, but that’s not the point.
There haven’t been many Super Bowl disaster movies, in no small part because the National Football League is comprised of a bunch of litigious tightasses who seem to think snipers, crashing blimps loaded with projectiles, and thousands of panicking fans trampling one another to get to safety would somehow reflect them in a bad light. Movies like that might also discourage your more jittery types from dropping $2,000 a ticket on next year’s game. They’re so desperate to maintain a squeaky-clean image we aren’t even allowed to use the name “Super Bowl” anymore unless we’re an official corporate sponsor.
Interestingly enough, the only two Super Bowl disaster films we seem to have at our disposal came out a year a part, at the tail end of the Disaster Movie Era (DME), and both were based on novels which themselves came out a year apart.
Two-Minute Warning (1976)
Universal took the opening kickoff in the Disaster Bowl with a colorful all-star cast in a Larry Pierce film based on a cheap thriller by George La Fountaine. The plot’s a very simple one. It just reeks of High Concept. In fact I can sum the whole thing up in an easy seven-word sentence: “There’s a sniper at the Super Bowl!”
Of course they aren’t allowed to say “Super Bowl,” or show any team logos, or even mention any team names, but WE ALL KNOW WHAT THEY’RE TALKING ABOUT (even if the actual game footage we see is from a college game). But who’s even going to notice such trifles when you have Charlton Heston as a security chief, and he gets to say “Oh…my…God” a lot?
Then you’ve got John Cassavetes (who considered this the worst movie he ever made) as a swaggering SWAT team commander, Martin Balsam as the stadium manager, Jack Klugman as an unlucky gambler (what else?), screen legend Walter Pidgeon as an elderly pickpocket, Beau Bridges as an unemployed father trying to prove something to his shrill and abrasive family, an endless stream of big names and sort of big names all filling out the standard disaster movie roles. Oh, and there’s a sniper, too, up there by the scoreboard, but he just sits there for much of the film making everyone else a little antsy.
In the novel (which yes I own and have read several times, so let’s just shut up about it), the sniper is loosely based less on Charles Whitman than on Arthur Bremer, the would-be assassin who was after Nixon but shot George Wallace instead. In fact in the novel the sniper is out to get Nixon, who’s supposed to be at the game. We learn an awful lot about him and his dysfunctional background, from his trouble with girls to his abortive effort to join the Black Panthers.
All that is stripped away in the film in favor of a much more Witmanesque villain. Pierce is far less interested in psychological profiles and social commentary than he is in sticking to the standard disaster format of filling us in on the personal lives of all these side characters (David Jannsen’s reluctance to marry Gena Rowlands, for instance), which is really just a clever way to get the audience betting on who was gonna go down once the shooting started. It didn’t matter who was doing the shooting or why, so long as it got started at some point.
We have to sit through an awful lot of exposition and what Pierce was hoping would pass for “tension” before the audience got what it paid for. And during those two minutes when the bullets are flying randomly this way and that through the crowd things do get lively (even if it is only a college game), and there’s no guessing who’s going to drop next.
Well okay, maybe there’s some guessing, the same way you could guess the fates of certain characters the minute they stepped aboard The Love Boat or landed on Fantasy Island. Watching it again recently, in fact, it struck me how much Two-Minute Warning not only plays like a Love Boat episode, but is shot like one, too. Except, y’know, with a sniper up there in the crow’s nest.
Save for that business at the end, the movie itself is pretty drab, and we’re not given much reason to care about any of these people. Despite all those stars and that high concept, Pierce fumbled on his own six-yard line, and his picture has since been mostly forgotten.
Black Sunday (1977)
Even if Black Sunday wasn’t the megablockbuster Paramount was expecting it to be, director John Frankenheimer had much better luck than Pierce on several levels, and made a much better picture than the previous year’s effort. First he was working from the novel Thomas Harris wrote before he introduced Hannibal Lecter. Inspired by the Black September assassination of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, he came up with a more politically and psychologically complex story than “well, there’s some guy shooting up the Super Bowl,” and one that makes the big whiz-bang ending a little more understandable.
Instead of signing a bunch of big stars to line up in little boxes across the bottom of the poster, Frankenheimer instead opted to get, um, good actors. So there’s Robert Shaw as an Israeli counter-terrorism agent, Marthe Keller as a Palestinian terrorist, and Bruce Dern, in a role he would play again and again throughout the ‘70s, as the unbalanced Vietnam vet.
Best of all though, not only did Frankenheimer get permission from Goodyear to use actual blimps complete with logos (thanks to a long relationship with their PR department), he was even able, miracle of miracles, thanks to the intervention of the Miami Dolphins owner, to get permission from the NFL to film a real Super Bowl on location, using real team names and everything.
You really do have to wonder how that conversation went down, don’t you?
“Well, Johnny, what’s the scoop? Tell me all about this movie you got in mind.”
“Well, Pete, glad you asked. Here’s the story. So there’s this crazy ex-POW, see? And he’s a Goodyear blimp pilot. And there’s this Palestinian terrorist group led by a sexy broad. They got some wacky political agenda, right? And they want to make a big splash by doing something real big in America. You know them terrorists. So what they do, see, is they recruit this crazy vet guy, and he’s gonna crash his blimp right into the Orange Bowl while the Cowboys and Steelers are in the middle of the Super Bowl next month! Can you dig it? I mean crash it right the fuck down in there during the game and then set off this kind of explosive thing that’ll kill thousands and thousands of football fans!”
“Wow! Just completely wreck the game AND kill thousands of fans? Now THAT’S what I call a whiz-bang picture! I think we got ourselves a deal!”
“Glad to hear it, Pete. See, it’s that realism we’re after. That kinda realism would just make the whole thing so much more, well, real, right? I mean, you ever see Two-Minute Warning last year?”
That’s how I like to imagine it anyway. I mean, Frankenheimer had to make certain concessions, sure. Dern had to be a freelance pilot, not a Goodyear employee, and the blimp itself could not kill any innocent football fans. Not right there on the screen, anyway. But they were comparatively minor things, and that he was able to get away with what he did is nothing short of astonishing.
Thing is, being a Frankenheimer film, it’s an extremely gritty, tough-minded picture in which the hero (unless you’re one of those sick pups rooting for Bruce Dern) is just as nasty and ruthless and unlikable as the villains (who themselves are presented more sympathetically than you’d expect). Audiences who’d seen the commercials and the posters might’ve been disappointed they had to listen to a bunch of yakking about Middle Eastern politics first, and that the blimp crash sequence wasn’t quite the massively explosive set piece they’d been expecting. Still, brief and maybe even anticlimactic as it may be to some, it’s a doozy, and a cinematic first (unless you count The Hindenburg). Even if the political thriller wasn’t the touchdown pass everyone was hoping it would be, that image of the Goodyear blimp nose-diving into the Orange Bowl is as indelible as Bart Starr shoving his way over the goal line or Franco Harris’ immaculate reception. To me, anyway.
Ah, but thanks to the NFL and Homeland Security we’ll never see their likes again, which is too bad. It seems a magic combination, a genre waiting to happen. Super Bowl Disaster Movies bring together those two American favorites, the glitzy, overproduced small-scale brutality and violence of the Super Bowl itself and overwhelming scenes of mass destruction and public hysteria. What could be better than that?
Okay, I think I’ll keep my last crack to myself, because it would probably get me arrested. And I’m already in enough trouble for saying “Super Bowl.”