Saturday, March 16, 2013

Gentlemen, We Are Now A Superpower

With the United States in the habit of embroiling in wars with dubious motives, director Robert Aldrich’s TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING will always be as timely as it was when originally released in 1977, two years after the fall of Saigon. It's impossible to conceive of such a sharp, angry, intelligent, cynical political thriller emerging from today's mindless Hollywood studios.

Former Air Force general Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster, no stranger to political thrillers), five years a prisoner of war in Vietnam and currently incarcerated on a trumped-up murder charge in a Montana prison, breaks out, along with three other death row inmates (played by Paul Winfield, ROCKY's Burt Young, and William Smith), and infiltrates “Silo 3,” an ICBM silo containing nine nuclear missiles.

In exchange for not starting World War III, Dell demands $10 million in cash, safe passage to another country aboard Air Force One, and, oh yes, that the President of the United States, David Stevens (Charles Durning), announce to the world details of a secret meeting of high-placed government officials that would reveal the true reason for America’s involvement in Vietnam. As President Stevens and his advisors decide how the American people will react to the shocking truth, hawkish General MacKenzie (Richard Widmark) plans to strike at Dell using military force and doesn’t care who gets in his way.

Based upon a novel by Walter Wager, the screenplay by Ronald M. Cohen and Edward Huebsch adds the political polemic that makes the film more than just a tightly constructed suspenser. What may have seemed farfetched in 1977 has become prophetic in the decades since, now that we know the U.S. Government’s decision to keep sending troops to fight in Vietnam was indeed a mistake (how much of Cohen and Huebsch’s screenplay is actually non-fiction?) The script occasionally fumbles. The base seems childishly easy to break into with just a few (not too bright) guards blocking Lancaster’s path, and MacKenzie seems too simpleminded in his reticence to take Lancaster’s threat seriously.

Those story holes and others are easily forgotten, however, amid the edge-of-the-seat suspense Aldrich (THE DIRTY DOZEN) wrings out of the script and the tightly controlled performances by the extraordinary cast. Lancaster stands out as the paranoid yet mannered terrorist, a man who wants only for the government for which he believes to stand up and admit its wrongdoing. Dell is unhinged, but respectful, intelligent, and even sensitive. He’s more than matched by Durning in the film’s best performance, an honest man who wasn’t in charge during the Vietnam years (the film is set in 1981), but is willing to accept the responsibility for the sins of his “fathers.”

Joining these men are Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Gerald S. O’Loughlin, Richard Jaeckel, Charles McGraw, Leif Erickson, William Marshall, Charles Aidman, Simon Scott, Roscoe Lee Browne, Ed Bishop, John Ratzenberger, and Morgan Paull. Allied Artists released this independently financed feature (the low budget is evident in the flat lighting and the well-crafted but obvious miniature effects), which was shot in Munich partially using German funds.


Eric Gilliland said...

I recently viewed this forgotten film for my cold war blog. I agree, Durning have a great performance. One of the all time great character actors.

The Man said...

Great review. A fun film to watch, some very good performances, and just the usual misrepresentation of the military and its procedures - it seems Hollywood always prefers a dramatic, made up narrative to any realistic representation of what the military is and does. On that note, it was AFTER the movie War Games that many of the command and control bunkers wanted what they saw on screen and updated the formerly cold and sterile, bland interiors to match the giant screen monitors and computers with lots of colored, flashing lights that Hollywood had made up owing to lack of access to the real thing. So life does imitate art, even if art often has to create a fictional world from writers' imaginations to entice audiences.