This movie is a highly exciting and fairly riveting computer hardware and political thriller, which has some deeply disturbing, if not cynical things to say about some of the powers that be in the United States Governemnt. It also handles the subject of nuclear hijacking and terrorism really well. Like The Flight Of The Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen, Robert Aldrich's direction delivers the goods in this potboiler of a political thriller. One that was seriously laced with both liberal and conservative politics. Indeed, this cinematic masterpiece is very explosive, brutal, violent, and doesn't hold back on anything. One of the finest in action cinema.
The action in the film begins on a Sunday Morning in Autumn in 1981 (the near future for this 1977 release) and centers on former US Air Force Brigadier General Lawrence Dell (the late Burt Lancaster), a Vietnam veteran who served five years as a POW. Upon his return, Dell became a vocal advocate of disclosing the truth behind US involvement in Southeast Asia and IndoChina in the hope that a post-Watergate America would forgive its government and have renewed faith in its leaders. Regarded as a dangerous embarrassment by the higher-ups, Lawrence Dell is framed on a manslaughter charge and sent to prison. Still determined, he recruits three inmates (played by the late Paul Winfield, Burt Young, and William Smith) to help him escape and take over a nearby SAC base in Montana, that he helped design. Once in control of the base, and armed with the launch codes, Dell non-negiotiably demands from the SAC Command Center that U.S. President David Stevens (Charles Durning) reveal the truth about the Vietnam War to the American people by reading National Security Council document 9759 on national television. SPOILER ALERT! A security file revealing the United States of America's real reasons for entering the Vietnam Conflict in the first place. Files, it would seem, that no one in the United States Government, wants to be made open to the general public. If these demands that the top-secret Vietnam War files are not made public, Dell promises, at the turn of two keys, to send the nine Titan missiles to their targets in the Soviet Union.
In many ways, the plea for 'open' government and revealing the shameful, if not truthful, secrets of both a controversial war and former administrations makes this science fiction/action thriller the first film of the Carter administration.
Twilight's Last Gleaming is a stunning indictment of the arrogance, if not bureaucratic close-mindedness, of certain government decision makers and the lengths to which they will go to maintain both the "business as usual" stance and the "covering up of the brutal truth". At the same time it also dramatizes both the cynicism of the Post Watergate Seventies and the danger of our unthinking faith in technology. Tellingly, it comes as a deep shock to the military that their usually reliable computer systems and detailed procedures seem to have gone haywire on the day of the siege (of the missile silo that Dell and his people are in), leaving them powerless to stop Dell.
Robert Aldrich's film--shot in the former West Germany with no cooperation from the US military--is a fascinating, tension-filled effort. One that could be accurately described as a Cold War thriller with a serious social commentary that was ten years ahead of its time. Especially with the United States and the United Kingdom Of Great Britain still recovering from the loss of the Vietnam War.
Burt Lancaster contributes a fine performance as the righteous, populist Brigadier General. One can definitely understand why this right-winged patriot resorts to such methods to reveal the truth, and the extraordinary lengths that go with such tactics. Charles Durning, as always(when he plays heroic and sympathetic characters)is superb as the saintly President Of The United States, who comes to empathize Lancaster's viewpoints and high hopes. Paul Winfield offers some sound wisdom as convict Willis Powell. Burt Young has some minor comic moments as the other convict(his messing up of his fake identity to the Military Police guards at the missile silos is memorable). And finally Richard Widmark is excellent as the SAC General who goes out of his way to stop Dell from starting the nuclear countdown to World War III.
Further more, the late Jerry Goldsmith composes his usual, if not excellent soundtrack for the film, and veteran director Aldrich uses some remarkable split-screen techniques that add to the film's tension and speed up the complicated expository passages.
The film also has an extraordinary cast of familiar character actors that consist of Shane Rimmer, the late Ed Bishop, Phil Brown, the late William Hootkins, John Ratzenberger, Garrick Hagon, and a range of familiar screen legends that include the late William Marshall, Gerald S. O'Laughlin, the late Leif Erickson, the late Richard Jaeckel, the late Melvyn Douglas, and the late Charles Aidman.
Despite some minor impossibilities, Twilight's Last Gleaming is both a gripping right-winged and left-winged action conspiracy drama that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very bitter end. Especially where it "SPOILER ALERT" involves some members of a shadowy branch of American Special Forces, determined not to have that secret document about the bush wars in Vietnam revealed.