There are no midgets in the United States Air Force. – General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster)
Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977) was middle-aged, white liberal Hollywood’s reckoning with the United States’ government’s war machine over Vietnam and the assassination of President Kennedy. Though ironically director Robert Aldrich’s leftist politics forced the production to move to Germany. Twilight’s Last Gleaming is an invaluable artifact of its moment. For the film’s star, Burt Lancaster, it was the first of two films he would make that called attention to the horrifically corrupt war of Vietnam (the second film being 1978’s Go Tell The Spartans).
In 1976 and 1977 the Vietnam War as still a kind of taboo subject in Hollywood. In order for Aldrich to make the film he had to have Lancaster, making Twilight’s Last Gleaming their fourth collaboration. Audiences don’t really think of Robert Aldrich as an “actor’s director”, though he proves again, in this film, that he most certainly can be. In fact, the performances of Paul Winfield and Charles Durning steal the show from such renowned talent as Joseph Cotten, Richard Widmark, and even Burt Lancaster, largely due to Aldrich’s sensitivity as a director.
As much as Twilight’s Last Gleaming is Aldrich’s film, it also belongs to the editors. Outside of Brian DePalma’s filmography it’s hard to name films that really use the split screen device well; Michael Wadleigh’s Woodstock (1970) and Wolfen (1981) are excellent examples, as are Richard Fleischer’s The Boston Strangler (1968) and Nicolas Ray’s We Can’t Go Home Again (1973). Twilight’s Last Gleaming is a tour de force in the split screen technique and rivals any of the films mentioned above in terms of technical prowess.
The problem with Twilight’s Last Gleaming is that its concept of an American president and the American military apparatus doesn’t age too well. Aldrich’s pessimism is finely executed, but it’s the flag waving the Lancaster and Durning characters do to justify their actions that feel hackneyed. The conviction of a performance and the earnestness of the direction never really manage to compensate for some of the hayseed dialogue. In a post-Trump America it’s too hard to believe that a U.S. president would die in the line of duty.