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Film Fridays | "The Last Thing He Wanted" heartbreakingly over-promises and under-delivers

<p><em>Graphic by Carissa Gurgul</em></p>

Graphic by Carissa Gurgul

Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers. The views and opinions expressed in this article do not reflect those of The Collegian.

“Do you know who the unreported casualties of Vietnam were? The reporters who couldn’t move past it. We are meant to survive beyond our stories,” said Jones, played by Edi Gathegi.

“The Last Thing He Wanted,” directed by Dee Rees and based on Joan Didion’s 1996 novel of the same name, follows the story of Elena McMahon (Anne Hathaway), a journalist investigating the activity of the Contras in El Salvador in 1982 with her colleague Alma Guerrero (Rosie Perez). After an invasion of their El Salvador office during which McMahon and Guerrero almost lose their lives, they return to the headquarters of the fictional Atlantic Post in Washington D.C. 

Having lost her story, McMahon is reassigned to cover Ronald Reagan’s 1984 re-election bid, which she hates. When — quite conveniently — her estranged father (Willem Dafoe) needs her help with a $1 million arm deal in Costa Rica, McMahon sees an opportunity to retrace her story in Costa Rica but has no idea what she’s getting into. And frankly, I never had any idea either. 

I love political and investigative journalism thrillers. They are demanding and risky to make, and small details can make a big difference when determining whether a political thriller will stand out or fail. Therefore, whenever a new political thriller comes out, I try not to have too high expectations, so I’m not let down by an unsatisfying ending. 

When the enthralling trailer of “The Last Thing He Wanted” came out about two months ago, I did not let myself get carried away and kept a thought in the back of my mind that it might turn out not to be the great political thriller it seemed to be. But how bad could it be? The trailer featured scenes full of suspense, powerful lines and an exceptional cast (Hathaway, Ben Affleck, Dafoe), which gave hope for a promising movie of its kind. 

Well, I was quite wrong, because “The Last Thing He Wanted” under-delivered in a heartbreaking way that I never could have imagined.   

Written by Rees and Marco Villalobos, “The Last Thing He Wanted” is an ambitious piece of work with a compelling central theme: a journalist experiencing a moral crisis as she gets personally involved in the story she’s covering. Nevertheless, the movie tries too hard to do too much and misfires.

Political thrillers tend to have characters, such as moles or double agents, that may perplex the viewer, but they eventually reward with some mind-blowing final plot twist that allows everything to fall into place satisfyingly and intelligently.  

Unfortunately, this is not the case with “The Last Thing He Wanted.” Obscure conversations, unreadable characters and an incomprehensible plot make it an overpacked, yet incomplete movie. A rushed revelation of how some of the events and characters overlapped takes place in the last 20 minutes in an even more unsettling manner that is frustrating, leaving many questions still unanswered.

Hathaway’s acting is good, and her character is a multifaceted and intricate one: a fearless journalist with a moral compass, a single mother and a breast cancer survivor. There are some beautiful scenes with moving dialogue between Elena and her father and Elena and her daughter, as well as one great scene where she sincerely admits her confusion (#relatable, Elena) and the loss of her story’s purpose.

However, somewhere in the middle of the movie, we lose that dynamic and smart Elena who is passionate about exposing the truth. Instead, we see a shallow Elena who falls into despair and makes some questionable decisions — just like the writers of this movie. 

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Elena may feel disoriented about her story and doubtful about its purpose. Yes, that’s supposed to be the central theme. But that doesn’t mean we, the viewers, should feel the same about the movie’s plot. 

Speaking of Elena’s story, I suppose that it was the U.S. government funding the Nicaraguan rebel groups fighting the Sandinistas in the 1980s Contra War, but again we never really find out. Maybe that is another message of the movie: how many newsworthy stories fail to make it to the light. But frankly, I got too confused to even realize that. 

Dafoe has a genuine and moving performance as a regretful father and ex-husband of Elena’s mother. Affleck plays Treat Morrison, a shady U.S. government official who seems to be the key to much of what’s going on. But, Rees and Villalobos elaborate poorly on Affleck’s flat character and barely give him any lines. 

Other important figures — like a mysterious man with a black cowboy hat — also appear in random moments, but we never get to find out who they are and what their roles are, causing even more confusion. 

During an interview at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, Rees said, “I just want audiences to feel regret at the end and a sense of loss and to think about what other stories have been buried.” Well, I felt that. But about the talent and potential that got wasted in this film.

The trailer had intrigued me so much that I would watch the movie anyway despite the negative reviews. Plus, I watched it with one of my best friends, which made the confusion much more bearable and laughable.

I felt regret and a sense of loss for the talented ensemble cast and the powerful lines from Didion’s novel that stood insufficient to make up for this disappointingly miscalculated and incoherent adaptation. I thought about the stories that have been buried in the 1980s Contra War that “The Last Thing He Wanted” had the opportunity to shed some light on and educate its audience. Nevertheless, Rees left her audience as clueless about Central American politics as when they started the movie. 

I don’t want to discourage you from watching the movie, in case you haven’t already. I honestly enjoyed a big part of it. Even through its confusion, it kept me engaged. 

I just wish everything came together in an intelligent, satisfying, mind-blowing way like what happens in great political thrillers. 

“The Last Thing He Wanted” is now available to watch on Netflix. If you figure out what’s going on, let me know.

IMDb rating: 4.3/10

Rotten Tomatoes rating: 6% (critic)

My personal rating: 5/10

Contact contributor Myrsini Manou-Georgila at myrsini.manougeorgila@richmond.edu. 

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