Based on the Joan Didion book of the same title, The Last Thing He Wanted tells the story of a hard-nosed female journalist who becomes a middleman for her father’s gun-running scheme shortly after her scoop on the Iran-Contra affair is derailed.
Actress Anne Hathaway plays Elena McMahon, an Atlantic Post reporter who gets reassigned to President Ronald Reagan’s reelection campaign. While caring for her ill father, Elena discovers that he is involved in arms dealing. He asks her to fill in for one last job worth $1 million, which is how Elena finds herself in the middle of the same U.S.-Central American conflict she was initially reporting on and a loose end the dealers want to tie up.
Acclaimed Mudbound director Dee Rees’s narrative gets lost as the film, which she co-wrote and directed, tries to draw parallels between the 1984 campaign and President Trump’s reelection bid. Some of those creative liberties lead to absurdity, such as the claim Reagan was protected by the nation’s media during Iran-Contra, and that AR-15s were the military’s weapon of choice in 1984.
One creative decision that marred the film is Elena’s unclear motivations. Elena is portrayed as a morally superior journalist, but her foolish chase for a big payment is driven by wanting to do one last favor for her father, Dick, who is dying of dementia, though her relationship with her father is not established as a good one.
Dick was set up to be the final loose end of a clean-up job, meaning that the entire conflict could have been avoided if Elena, as a moral and intelligent reporter, had simply refused to get involved. She doesn’t use her father’s situation as a source of information for a story, knows nothing about the people her father works for, doesn’t know what they are trading, but she knows there is a million-dollar payout — and ignores a mountain of obvious red flags.
Elena’s unclear and changing motivations make it difficult for the audience to follow. At one point, she tells the audience, “I don’t know why I came,” — a thought the audience likely shares that also highlights the film’s major failing.
To make matters more baffling, the film introduces Elena’s daughter roughly halfway into the film and tries to use her as an emotional plot device. But much like a scene between Hathaway and love interest Ben Affleck, the execution-only evokes the emotion of confusion over its intended purpose.
Plot points don’t connect to reveal the central story. Conflicts of trust become tiresome when the film’s lead cannot connect with the audience and relentless red herrings do nothing to improve the 115-minute runtime.
Hathaway’s narration fails to capture audience interest, while Affleck is underused in a story that doesn’t need him to progress. Even Rosie Perez is resigned to a side character with little screen time or purpose. Performances by the supporting cast offer so little emotion, it feels like they filmed their scenes quickly and moved on to other projects.
The historic details of the Salvadoran Civil War, such as Reagan pouring nearly $1 billion into El Salvador to help the government stop communist rebels and the U.S. ambassador defying Reagan’s order to defuse the situation in the public eye, are far more interesting than anything the film shows. The Last Thing fails at the No. 1 rule of thriller or action movies: Show, don’t tell. “The Last Thing He Wanted” abandons government corruption and geopolitics in favor of a complicated international game of one-upmanship and an unfounded romance.