Months from now, when 2020’s winding down, The Last Thing He Wanted will be appearing on many people’s end-of-year lists. The problem is what kind of lists those will be, as they certainly won’t be positive ones.
The Last Thing He Wanted is a Netflix Original film and has a solid cast led by Academy Award-winner Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez (Birds of Prey), Willem Dafoe (The Lighthouse), and Toby Jones. It’s a story of political intrigue planted in the peak of Reagan era politics and the highly controversial US foreign policy in Central America. All the ingredients of this one would lead us to expect a John le Carre like tale, in the vein of the underrated Tailor of Panama (2001) or the magnificent Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (2011).
However, what we get is a disaster of a film so convoluted an Ivy League graduate doing a dissertation on the Iran Contra affair would be hard-pressed to make sense of it! The story is confusing and told with such uneven pacing you’re likely to find yourself groaning or shouting as the credits roll. Insight into what the hell happened during its production might be a more worthy feature than the end-result. The Last Thing He Wanted is a frustrating waste of rich story material and a talented cast.
At some point during its 155-minutes The Last Thing He Wanted occupied my headspace, I expected that tacky (albeit strangely appropriate) tune by Don Henley to take over the soundtrack. Maybe that was the spice this one lacked…
The story follows damaged and disgruntled US journalist Ellen McMahon (Hathaway) as she retreats from the underreported war zones of El Salvador to the mundane existence of a member of the Washington press corps. The Last Thing He Wanted starts with the action well underway and spends no time setting up the time or place we find our heroine in. Moreover, the film gives us little reason to care about McMahon, save for having an always likeable actress playing her.
McMahon and her journalistic sidekick (Perez) are recalled to Washington, D.C and reassigned to join the mass of national media following the 1984 reelection campaign of Ronald Reagan. McMahon’s disdain for Reagan’s politics is second only to her humiliation for being given an assignment that most journalists would kill for. To her, the real news was taking place in Central America where the US government was involved in numerous covert operations to topple regimes. What many in D.C simply saw as policy (although it was officially denied as policy) McMahon saw for the brutal reality is was.
The problem, however, was that nobody cared.
McMahon’s rescued from her dread by the sudden arrival of her estranged father, Dick (Dafoe). From his first moments on screen, it’s apparent the two share different views on the world as daddy isn’t shy about loudly sharing his displeasure for homosexuals, communists, and women. What’s also clear is that Dick McMahon’s suffering from some type of neurological condition that is affecting his memory and sense of reason.
I must quickly give kudos to my wife, who’s in the medical profession, for identifying a key subplot point the filmmaker inexplicitly abandoned. Dick actually seems to be suffering from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome, a condition commonly brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking. Several scenes, including one with Ellen alone in her father’s house, seem to confirm this diagnosis… but the film doesn’t do anything with it and instead treats the condition like a convenient character flaw.
Someone should’ve told Defoe that because he seizes on this character like it’ll earn him a surefire Oscar nomination. Defoe is way too good for this film and his performance almost makes one wonder if he read the same script as the director.
Anyway, Dick McMahon is involved in some secret gun trade with some unknown folks in Central America. But after an accident that puts him in the hospital, he has no way to complete his part of the deal. He then explains what’s at stake financially (a cool $500,000) and his daughter, who was seemingly looking for an excuse to head back to that part of the world, immediately jumps at the chance to take his place.
When the deal goes sour and payment doesn’t appear, Ellen takes one illogical step after another racing for her life but clearly unaware of who from. The fog surrounding her enemies and friends remains to the film’s final scene.
Ben Affleck doesn’t appear to be having a good time playing CIA official Treat Morrison. To be fair, the timing of the film’s production likely matched up with his “sabbatical” in rehab. He looks chunkier than usual and, frankly, comes off as disinterested in the role. Perez’s role is also so abbreviated you’ll like to forget she’s there, whereas Toby Jones continues to affirm why he’s one of this generation’s best character actors. But, much like Defoe, his fine performance is wasted on subpar material.
Granted, even if the film had lived up to its potential it wouldn’t be for everyone. The nature of the story is guaranteed to bore the eyeballs out of many. I’m its target audience (mid-forties, American, educated with two degrees) and even I really disliked this movie. It’s a frustrating mess of half-baked plot points disguised as a character drama.
I’m sure the filmmaker wants me to believe the story is really about Ellen and not geopolitical scandals, but if that’s true, why treat her like a complete idiot? In one moment, I’m to believe Ellen McMahon is this smart, savvy, fearless truth-seeking scribe who speaks for all those untold victims of Superpower proxy wars. Then she sheds that skin quicker than she loses her clothes for a man she doesn’t know and seemingly isn’t attracted to… and for what? A free breakfast buffet at his hotel?
The treatment of lead character is an insult to the source material and the talented Hathaway. It might shock some to learn the director who made these decisions was not some misogynistic white male but a woman director. Yet another head-shaking element of the film that I cannot begin to answer. Maybe someday we’ll get that behind-the-scenes documentary on the making of The Last Thing He Wanted.
That might be a film worth watching.
Cast & Crew
director: Dee Rees.
writers: Marco Villalobos & Dee Rees (based on the novel by Joan Didion).
starring: Anne Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Rosie Perez, Edi Gathegi, Mel Rodriguez, Toby Jones & Willem Dafoe.