Friday, July 4, 2008

Review: "Last Best Chance" (2005)

originally posted 10/9/07 on sammcpheeters.com

The disappointment of Fred Thompson flows in two directions. The actor, former senator, and presidential candidate recently scolded an Iowa audience for not applauding him. Our disappointment in him is neatly mirrored by his own disappointment in all of us. Thompson lacks the humor and charm of his ideological ancestor, Ronald Reagan. He resembles a melted Kelsey Grammar, and his strong suit seems to be unyielding, unrelenting disappointment. If he wins the presidency next year, we can expect him to sigh and shake his head silently.

But Thompson's candidacy does offer something unique in the history of American politics: he has already played the commander in chief. In HBO's "Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee", he bravely channels the spirit-gum beard of Ulysses Grant, regularly ranked among the worst ten presidents. That performance evokes a melted, disappointed Unabomber in an undertaker's suit (although a brief conversation about bringing democracy to the Indians may prove instructive for a future Thompson cabinet). Far more illuminating is Thompson's turn as President Charles B. Ross in 2005's "Last Best Chance". President Ross is a hands-on guy, engaged, decisive, and hungry for facts. The disappointment is there, but held in check, harnessed for the greater good. In 2007, the film plays out like an extended campaign ad.

It was born of loftier ambitions. The movie was produced by former senator Sam Nunn through his Nuclear Threat Initiative. Nunn is better known for sponsoring the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, an ambitious attempt to secure and destroy old Soviet nuclear weapons. The NTI is a less ambitious attempt to send out free DVDs of "Last Best Chance" to anyone who wants one. The movie presents itself as a political thriller with an agenda, distant cousin to "The Day After", and "The Day After Tomorrow". It aims to scare.

For most of "Last Best Chance", it does seem as if something terrible is just around the corner. President Ross's team frets over intelligence while we follow the progress of stolen bomb materials up the rungs of the third and second world, nations afflicted by jittery handicam and fretful ambience that swells and fades, like wind whistling down a long hall. With al-Qaeda as the villain, the whole project has a distinctly postmodern odor to it, so I'm curious why the producers didn't just cast Fred Thompson as a first term President Fred Thompson (he played himself in his debut film - 1985's "Marie" - just as real flight controllers were coerced into reliving their worst day for "United 93"). Ross makes references to 9/11 and the terror attacks in Bali and Madrid, so the distinct implication is that we are watching # 44 in action, the first post-W presidency.

An interesting little mystery involves a change in personnel. One of the bombs, passed up the terrorist food chain by corrupt Russians and menacing Africans, winds up in the hands of a young white college boy. "It'll make a real impression in New York," the youngster tells a disinterested Canadian customs officer. The young white college boy reemerges a little later, driving a van across a remote border checkpoint with a young white college girl. Who are these two? John Walker Lindh types? Manchurian Candidate types? Two small Yemeni men in latex Caucasian masks? We never find out. The final shot shows the minivan driving away into the bucolic distance. With different theme music it could be a happy ending to a teen romance. Nothing explodes.

At only 45 minutes, LBC is odd propaganda. The film's appeal to fear is similar to 1983's "The Day After", only minus the fear. I actually stumbled upon the last 20 minutes of "The Day After" while channel surfing just last month, and instantly regressed into a terrified fourteen year old. Even now, two decades of bad Steve Guttenberg comedies can't erase the horror of young Steve Guttenberg's grimy, hobo-clown face as he shambles through a gymnasium of dying Kansans. The most memorable face in "Last Best Chance" is Thompson's, and although it was nice to see an adult in charge in the oval office, his big melty mug of disappointment simply isn't that terrifying. "I don't want us sitting on our butts if something's about to happen," Thompson tells a staffer who has disappointed him. Something never materializes.

The Nuclear Threat Initiative is not much help with the scares. The DVD refers us to their website, and the website wants to send us more free DVDs. NTI offers a selection of interesting policy stories (like May's "Nuclear Experts Urge Return to Bomb Shelters", or June's news that U.S. Homeland Security has started recruiting science fiction authors), but nothing in the way of shock value.

Chaos and destruction were beyond NTI's $1 million budget, but it wouldn't have been that hard to make a completely unnerving movie instead of just a movie about an unnerving subject. The consequences of even one exploded U.S. city could be depicted as overheard broadcasts. The recently released "Right At Your Door" accomplishes something like this on a similar shoestring budget, portraying a dirty bomb attack on Los Angeles largely through the anguish of radio anchors. It's a very scary movie. Even scarier is a scene in last year's "Children Of Men", a film depicting a post-post-"Last Best Chance" world, when Clive Owen simply asks Juliana Moore, "Were your parents in New York when it happened?" Behind them, a wall of faded newspaper clippings hints at mushroom clouds and WWII-sized headlines. The props couldn't have cost more than Fred Thompson's suit.

"Last Best Chance" raises another novel possibility. If Moscow got whacked by one of its own suitcase bombs, the deteriorating Soviet early warning system might think it was being attacked by America. Could a terrorist attack on Russia result in the end of the world? Tellingly, there is no mention of "Last Best Chance" in Thompson's campaign bio. There is no mention of Nunn-Lugar, or securing nuclear weapons, in his national security platform. It's probably an emasculating idea, for Thompson, that the Russians and Africans and turncoat college sophomores in our midst could have more sway over the fate of the world than the guy in the White House. Or at least it is a terribly disappointing idea.