General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) should by all rights be in prison, but he has escaped with the help of three other inmates and they have made straight for the top secret military base in Montana where nine nuclear missiles are kept. They stage an accident that an Army vehicle decides to stop for, and they commandeer it by knocking out the driver and passenger, though one of the prisoners empties his pistol into the driver, much to the disdain of Dell - he will have to watch this man as the mission progresses. The party continues on in disguise to the gates of the base, and manage to bluff their way in, disposing of the guards along the way, then heading straight for a silo to take over control...
And why do they wish to do this? It's not down to Dell having a death wish for the whole world, it is because he wants the secrets of past government administrations to be exposed, so is happy to hold the global balance of nuclear weaponry power to ransom if the President (Charles Durning, miscast) cannot agree to his demands. As you can imagine, this was something of a dilemma, but one that was so farfetched that many an audience found it difficult to swallow: would the American military be so incompetent that they would have accidentally allowed such a set of events to believably take place, or was this story verging on the kind of plot conveniences that Hollywood relied on as a matter of course?
Actually, there was no verging about it, but the point of the film was not the basics of how to break into a missile base, it was what was discussed by the characters about the state of America and its place in the world after the Vietnam War had been lost. The country was still smarting from this defeat, to put it mildly, and Twilight's Last Gleaming was one of the first movies to attempt to get all this dirty laundry out in the open, mainly so the nation could pick over the bones of the humiliation and if not take away a positive from it, then at least work out why it happened and how they could avoid it happening again. Where they had gone wrong, according to this, was when they decided to fight small wars instead of the big one.
But who wanted World War III over the smaller conflicts, even if those alternatives to global war were liable to be lost as well? That was not addressed to any great satisfaction, and indeed much of Dell's logic was questionable which was uncomfortable when we were pressed to view him as a madman with a streak of good sense in his arguments when he wants to hold the authorities to account for their perceived crimes against the people they were supposed to be representing, never mind saving from the sort of bother that would see their lives plunged into peril. What director Robert Aldrich appeared to have been most impressed by was Sidney Lumet's state of the media shoutathon Network, a then-recent hit that had set many a moviegoer talking, and as in that here there were acres of dialogue for the actors to get through.
It was a highly qualified cast, granted, if resolutely middle-aged and older, but Aldrich relied too heavily on them bringing the chat to life when it tended to bog down what could have been a brisk thriller. In effect there was a dearth of suspense and action sequences that he could have made his own, albeit the central setpiece where Dell comes close to launching the warheads would likely have perked up the audience since this was one of the movies where you were genuinely not sure if the worst case scenario was going to play out before your very eyes. If that didn't happen, then you knew this would end in tears somehow, though the ultimate manner of that was well-hidden in what came across as a marathon viewing of one of those television miniseries that the nineteen-seventies were so fond of as "event TV" - nearly two and a half hours was a big ask to an audience to stay focused when it seemed like a cut and dried case. Don't set off the missiles and we don't all die was easy enough to grasp: the ins and outs of government policy and foreign affairs, however, were not as obvious as this would like us to believe. A brave try, but flawed. Music by Jerry Goldsmith.
[Eureka's Blu-ray has a lengthy featurette, a booklet and subtitles as extras.]