Sunday 17 April 2022

Movie Review: The Last Thing He Wanted (2020)

A journalist-in-peril conspiracy drama with thriller elements, The Last Thing He Wanted makes an incomprehensible mess out of a decent topic.

In the early 1980s, Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway) is a foreign correspondent for the Atlanta Post, working with photographer Alma Guerrero (Rosie Perez) to report from the civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua. Elena tries to uncover the US administration's role in the conflicts, but eventually the newspaper forces her back home to cover Reagan's reelection campaign. She still tries to corner US Secretary of State George Shultz and his chief strategist Treat Morrison (Ben Affleck) with questions about foreign policy.

Elena's father Dick (Willem Dafoe) is a scrappy loser and in poor health, but now claims to have arranged a business deal that will make him rich. When he ends up in hospital he pleads with Elena to close the deal for him. She finds herself shipping a plane-load of surplus weapons to shady characters in Central America, with payment in drugs instead of cash, and her troubles are only starting.

The 1980s civil wars in Central America make for compelling if difficult cinematic foundations. Movies like Under Fire (1983), Salvador (1986), Kill The Messenger (2014), and American Made (2017) tackled the conflicts with different degrees of grittiness and success. The Last Thing He Wanted adapts the 1996 Joan Didion book, and is an unfortunately disastrous attempt to use the hotspots of the Cold War as a backdrop for drama. Director Dee Rees co-wrote the screenplay with Marco Villalobos, and they appear to have given up early trying to explain anything about the plot or character motivations. Abstract pregnant narration about important real things is used as cheap cover for events and actions that make no sense.

The film is a collection of ideas stranded without the thread of coherence. Elena is (maybe?) being used for a barely explained nefarious purpose, but neither the details nor the context survive basic scrutiny. Someone pulls a gun every now and then, nervous soldiers display menacing behaviour, back in Washington men in suits talk about conspiracies in hushed tones, names of other men who never appear are floated around, bundles of money change hands between undefined characters, and mysterious packages with covert photos are supposed to mean something. 

Somewhere within the dross is a daughter stuck at a boarding school to add a layer of parental guilt, Elena taking an awful long time to realize she is repeating the behaviour she hates her father for. But then again, no one close to The Last Thing He Wanted can be accused of displaying sharp instincts.

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