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Movie Review: Black Air – The Buick Grand National Documentary

Movie Review: Black Air – The Buick Grand National Documentary

Like so many people, including the various enthusiasts and journalists featured in Black Air: The Buick Grand National Documentary I plainly remember the first time I rode in the Buick Grand National. I was 14 years old, obsessed with cars of all shapes and sizes and lucky enough to have a pal named Dana whose older brother owned a 1987 GN that was mildly modified with exhaust and a chip. I had ridden in some quick iron to that point. My dad’s ’64 GTO was no slouch and some of his friends had fast cars, so I was expecting the same experience. The big surprise for my 14-year old self would come in the form of boost and the sensation of a turbo spooling up and planting my chunky body deep into the pile of the Buick’s rear seat. It was insane. We laughed, mostly to keep from crying and pissing our pants at the same time. Holy cow that was something else. Because of that experience I had been waiting impatiently to see or hear word about Andrew Fillipone Jr’s much anticipated film Black Air. I was happy to find an advanced review copy waiting for me after returning from a couple days away in Florida with my wife. I skipped unpacking and went straight to the DVD player.


Having seen the few sneak peeks that Fillipone Jr leaked out over the last year or so, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect out of the movie. In the end I wound up watching it twice in order to form a clear opinion of what I had seen. Frankly, I entered into the film thinking it would be something akin to the old American Muscle Car show which would profile cars, have a journalist and an owner talk about their history, show some burnouts and then generally revel in their greatness. Fillipone Jr didn’t do that at all. While the film explores the history of the car and certainly celebrates it, the story is told in a much more organic way than simply hitting you over the head with production dates, horsepower, etc. For instance, we pick up the story of the car at the literal end. Old footage from inside the Buick plant as the last ever Grand National was produced is shown in all of its low resolution, jerky, amateur glory. We then see that very car, complete with employee signatures, signs, and other physical memories of the day as it sits today, perfectly preserved by a longtime GM dealer at this home.


The interviews with journalists like Tony Assenza, Marty Schorr, and Csaba Csere are interesting and provide great perspective for what the Grand National (and later the GNX) was in its time. At base, it was this boxy shaped Buick that hauled more ass in a straight line than virtually anything else sold new on American shores, even the expensive exotics. While this is an important point and one that needed to be made, if I could level a criticism at the film it would be that it seems to labor this point. There is a lot of time talking about the Grand National in comparison to Ferraris of the time and to me it seemed a little much. For gearheads the obvious beauty of the Grand National is what lies under that black paint, not the sheet metal that the black paint covers. The look is perfect for what amounts to the last gasp of the body on frame, old school muscle car, but it isn’t something that will be stirring the soul of designers in the future.


Grand National devotees are as hardcore as any niche automotive enthusiasts in the world and that is a double edged sword for a film maker like Fillipone Jr. One the one hand, it means that the people you meet, interview, and interact with will be passionate and knowledgeable beyond anything you’d probably expect and certainly very protective of their corner of the hobby. The other side of that sword is the challenge in keeping the film from becoming an automotive Star Trek convention. In this regard Fillipone largely succeeds. The people he interviews and focuses on, like Richard Clark, Paul Castle, and Doug Nigro literally bleed little GN logos when they are cut but also come off as well adjusted human beings that have simply found their calling in life. Clark’s collection of cars, engines, and original components is amazing. At one point we counted more than 10 complete GN engines (from intercooler to rear main seal) on the racks in his shop and transmissions by the gross.


Racing action in the film is limited to slow motion and quick cuts from the Buick Nationals at Beech Bend from a couple years back. The drag racer in me would have loved for Fillipone Jr to have at least profiled the quickest stock or stock appearing GN in the country or something along those lines, but that wasn’t the direction he wanted to take the film and I can respect that. For guys like me who were wanting more inside info and technical discussion on how these cars came to be and what went on behind the scenes, Fillipone Jr played it right. The bonus features of the DVD feature two talks/lectures given by men involved with the project Ron Yuille, who was a powertrain engineer that tells several insider stories about just how hard the Buick guys busted the Corvette team’s balls after wiping the floor with them on the strip and the street. David Roland who was a technical writer and insider on the GN and GNX project speaks as well. These lectures were filmed with a fixed camera that doesn’t have the best view of the projector screen the men use, but the audio is great and the stories are exactly what we were looking for. The stories from Ron and David confirm the fact that the GN and GNX were the last two cars that really stoked the fires of GM legendary divisional rivalries. These things just laid waste to Camaros so hard that the Corvette guys were next in line and they also suffered the same fate. Yuille came right out at the end of his talk and admitted that on a cool morning an intercooled ’87 GN was making FAR more than the advertised 245hp…probably more than 300hp actually. That is awesome and the stuff we were longing to hear.


Black Air will be available for purchase on December 11th for $20.00 plus shipping and handling. I believe that it is a good buy and a worthy watch for any car guy out there who wants to know the story of the Grand National and who is interested in learning about the “inside baseball” regarding Buick’s baddest performance car ever. At times I felt like Fillipone Jr. was being a bit too artsy with the camera work and that the GN hero worship was a little heavy at points, but overall this is a solid watch and it is apparent that Fillipone Jr. has the same level of passion regarding the Grand National that the subjects in his film share.






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12 thoughts on “Movie Review: Black Air – The Buick Grand National Documentary

  1. The Outsider

    The death of the GN/Regal Type-T and RWD sedans at GM . . . emblematic of the corporation’s failure.

    1. ImpalaSam

      Where can you actually buy the movie at? I own an ’86 GN and this looks like
      some solid “car guy” entertainment.

  2. Chip

    Did they mention Clark’s Speakerworks Buick GN, The bad-assest Car Audio competiton vehicle of all time? A legend to this day!

  3. CdmBill

    I would have liked to hear that it covered the great GN vs. Mustang wars that launched the whole late model racing series like NMCA and NMRA etc. It is really tough to make a doccumentary that has narative drive and can be enjoyed by the non-enthusiast as ell as the cognoceti, I look forwad to seeing it. I learned this with the documentary I produced called SOMM.

  4. Chris C.

    I used to read a story a member of the gran national club was writing on a website about his gran national, a mysterious buick GSX, and it was a good read, but then the story disappeared and I never got to read the rest. I was hoping this was the movie of the good read, but its not.

    1. Dave Nutting

      You mean the stories from Raven? Thanks for reminding me of those!

      Took some digging, but I found where they were archived:

      Don’t waste TOO much time reading through these today!

      – Your friendly Bangshift photographer and G-body nut.

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