An imprisoned rogue USAF general with a secret personal agenda, escapes the brig and takes over an ICBM silo, threatening to start WW3.An imprisoned rogue USAF general with a secret personal agenda, escapes the brig and takes over an ICBM silo, threatening to start WW3.An imprisoned rogue USAF general with a secret personal agenda, escapes the brig and takes over an ICBM silo, threatening to start WW3.
Instead, let's say there are three ways to make a film out of a Walter Wager novel. First we have the Telefon example: do a straight-up, linear, by-the-numbers thriller that is so straightforward and escapist that you get a rather wooden, unmemorable--if somewhat entertaining--potboiler. Nothing risked, nothing lost nothing gained. That's Telefon.
Or, there's the 58 Minutes/Die Hard 2 model: change main-character Malone to John McClane, keep the airport-in-jeopardy setting while massively rewriting the novel so it works as a movie sequel to something it wasn't even connected to in the first place, and make sure it's more exciting than Telefon. Your cinematic thriller has soul, and is safely attached to a successful franchise. And for goodness sakes, stay away from polemic, political commentary or deep meaning.
This brings us to our third case of filming a Walter Wager escapist thriller tome: attach thought-provoking socio-political concerns to the escapism. Try to address some lingering bitterness or cynicism in the US macro-psyche over, say, the Viet Nam war. Homegrown terrorists as anti-heroes, trying to out the government's secrets over a futile conflict that lingered on as a political peeing contest that cost too many lives, by way of a captured missile base. Rogue Major Burt Lancaster tries to stare down US President Charles Durning with nine nuclear warheads set to ferment, unless some dirty laundry is aired right quick. Of course it's previous administrations' decisions that Durning's version of the President is getting slapped around for, but that's all part of the...fun? Uh, no, sorry, all part of the moral conundrum. The fun is somewhere else in the movie...and quickly seeping out of the movie, the more director Robert Aldrich decides this is not just going to be escapist thrills.
Personally, I feel the movie gets most obviously unwieldy, and dangerously over-ambitious, once it starts to abandon Burt Lancaster, in favor of Charles Durning. There's a big shift in focus as soon as we start hanging out with Durning and his boardroom full of mucky-mucks--and shut-in Lancaster becomes sort of a bit player in the proceedings, even though he's got nine nuclear missiles. This switch in character focus directly corresponds to the diminishing thrills, and the emphasis on deeper questions and concerns that Robert Aldrich decided were in tune with the USA zeitgeist of 1977. Less booby-traps, ambushes, shoot-outs, torture sessions and stealth attacks gone wrong--more talk, talk, talk, by suits, suits, suits, sitting comfortably in chairs, chairs, chairs, who wants more coffee? Meanwhile, the split-screen effect used deftly during action sequences (much in the way of the TV show 24 years later) gives way to less suspenseful split-screen sequences showing Burt Lancaster almost looking bored while the President dithers.
Then the ending comes along and finds a really unexpected and daring way to combine stark cynical commentary with a shockingly brutal final confrontation such as you would find in only a truly bold and cutting-edge thriller. And so, I'm going to do what the movie does: I'm going to end a review of what sounds like a bad movie deserving its flop status by shifting gears and saying Bravo! Why? Well, 8 out of 10 for this because--despite everything wrongheaded about the project- -I can honestly say that there is no other thriller, or quasi-thriller stuffed with deep thoughts and dark commentary, quite like it. It's a glorious misfire. I didn't take it seriously, but it had me trying. More lively than Telefon, less cheesy fun than Die Hard 2, and a unique experiment: sort of Inside Man meets Sum Of All Fears meets Point/Counterpoint. Crashes and burns in one of the most compelling ways I've ever seen, and that ain't hay!
- Jan 14, 2013