Only now does it occur to me... that TWILIGHT'S LAST GLEAMING (1977)––a film I hadn't even heard of until a few weeks ago––is one of the finest political thrillers of its generation. Directed by master craftsman Robert Aldrich (KISS ME DEADLY, THE DIRTY DOZEN, WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE, EMPEROR OF THE NORTH), it's a chamber drama of the highest order (and with the highest stakes possible), and the only contemporary film of its kind I can think of that explores the disillusionment of post-Nixon America with such magnified audacity.
The set-up is this: an Air Force General (Burt Lancaster) has threatened to spill a few inconvenient truths about the Vietnam War to the American public––and winds up in prison for his trouble.
After befriending some fellow convicts (Paul Winfield and Burt Young, in sympathetic performances),
he busts out of jail and hijacks a nuclear missile silo (!), threatening to begin WWIII unless the sitting President, who had nothing to do with Vietnam (Charles Durning, sort of standing in for Carter), publicly releases the incriminating documents. To modern audiences, it may encourage comparisons to THE ROCK (1996), from its likable, spurned, and volatile General to the ginger handling of green, gel-based chemical weapons (sarin gel) in a particularly suspenseful sequence.
Above all, it's an adult thriller, brilliantly acted and directed, that trusts its audience to understand its labyrinthine politics and moral shades of gray. It could easily be a stage play, with the nuclear bunker on stage left and the Oval Office on stage right.
Charles Durning is particularly remarkable––he's sensitive and firm in his portrayal, the kind of clearheaded President you'd want on the front lines when something heavy goes down, like Henry Fonda in FAIL-SAFE or Martin Sheen on THE WEST WING. He grapples with the idea of the presidency becoming a puppet beholden to a shadow government, wondering if said government does not trust its own people, how can the people trust it? As a Carter-figure operating under the shadow of the presidents who came before, he must determine whether or not executive opacity has already crossed its Rubicon––or does the corrupted infrastructure yet contain an exit strategy for a decent man?
There's also a great moment where a brigadier general steals Durning's scotch
and Durning reprimands him, shouting:
"That's my drink, you make your own fucking drink!"
The supporting cast is a Who's Who of Old Hollywood testosterone, featuring everyone from Melvyn Douglas to Joseph Cotten to Richard Jaeckel to Richard Widmark.
And because it's a thriller with so few locations, Aldrich pumps it up with a style best described as "Brian De Palma on steroids," with plenty of two-way, three-way, and four-way split screens. Unlike De Palma, the tone is slightly detached, and consequently you almost feel like you're watching different news feeds of a historical event, rather than different channels jockeying for your attention.
Finally, Jerry Goldmith's wonderful score lends it a real, melancholy, FIRST BLOOD vibe. Like that film, it paints a picture for people who aggressively love America but don't think it's above reproach. (I guess I'm saying not to expect THE GREEN BERETS.) In all, it's an underseen gem with a clear and fervent voice that suceeds both as a white-knuckle thriller and as an investigation of a sadder, wiser American people.
Also, on a more frivolous note––half of the Rebellion from STAR WARS is working for the U.S. government in this movie: Garrick Hagon (Biggs Darklighter in STAR WARS),
William Hootkins (Jek Porkins in STAR WARS),
and John Ratzenberger (Bren Derlin in THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK)
all appear in bit parts as American soldiers.