Saturday, March 03, 2007

Film Comment Selects: Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977)

"There are no midgets in the military." So says Burt Lancaster in stentorian tones 2/3 of the way through Twilight's Last Gleaming, Robert Aldrich's 1977 political thriller. This after Paul Winfield, who broke out of jail with Lancaster to take over a nuclear missile silo, pesters him with wild theories about how the army is hiding snipers outside. With little people. It's the comic highlight of an otherwise white-knuckled, angry affair.

It's Aldrich's Vietnam protest film - as Lancaster plays a General railroaded into prison for protesting decisions made during the war. The key to his ransom demands in the silo is the release of the minutes from a National Security Council meeting that declares that the war was unwinnable, but that it should be continued anyway in order to send a message to the Soviet Union. Without the release of this document, Lancaster threatens to launch the missiles. Aldrich doesn't shy away from the madness of this action, incinerating an entire city out of outrage because of the unjust death of one's countrymen, but instead throws his indignation behind the forces that would drive a man to such ends.

Those forces are icily played by Joseph Cotten(!) as the cynical Secretary of State and Richard Widmark (!!) as a shoot-first general eager to solve the problem by dropping a small nuke into the silo. President Charles Durning is a bit of a pushover, naturally. Aldrich shows the back and forth of the negotiations with an extensive and expert use of split-screen, especially during the General's attempt to drop the nuke, when Lancaster and Winfield argue about the government's attentions in one frame, the army operatives descend the elevator shaft to drop the nuke in another, and the Joint Chiefs watch the operation on monitors in the third. It's a dizzying and remarkably tense sequence, making up for some of the overwrought speechifying that takes over it's final third.

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