Friday, April 20, 2018

The Last American Hero

For those of you who have FXM, you'll have a chance to catch The Last American Hero, tomorrow morning at 11:35 AM.

The movie is based on the life of early NASCAR driver Junior Johnson (real name Robert Johnson Jr.), renamed Elroy "Junior" Jackson for the movie and played by Jeff Bridges. (The action is also updated to sometime closer to the present, or at least the 1973 of when the movie was released, although exactly when it's set isn't mentioned.) Junior's father (Art Lund) is a moonshiner, since that's the only thing he and his family knows, and Junior runs moonshine to beat the revenuers. However, Dad wants something better for his sons Junior and Wayne (Gary Busey). Making and running moonshine is highly illegal because the feds can't countenance not getting their vig, so the result for Dad is that he's spent his life in and out of prisons, leaving the boys to look after Mom (Geraldine Fitzgerald). Dad doesn't want his kids ending up in prison like him.

Dad gets caught once again, and this time Junior learns just what the cost is. Never mind having to look after Mom, there's the more prosaic financial cost of getting a lawyer for Dad and making certain that Dad will be relatively comfortable in prison. (This obvious bit of penal system corruption is treated surprisingly matter-of-factly.) There's no money coming in with the still having been destroyed, so Junior has to come up with some other way of making money. Eventually, he decides to enter a demolition derby, and then he gets the idea of entering actual car races, since he's got a good fast car.

Unfortunately, Junior discovers that prize racing is becoming big business. (NASCAR had been founded in 1948.) To get the best car is going to take more money than Junior has. That's why the best cars have owners like Colt (Ed Lauter) who have drivers working for them. There's also the problem that Dad isn't exactly proud of his son becoming a car racer. But Junior is an excellent driver, able to win the lower tier races and actually able to put in a creditable showing in the first big race he runs as an independent -- until his engine blows out. Oh, there's that financial problem again.

Meanwhile, there's the other issue of big-time professional sports, which is groupies and hangers-on. That and the rivalries among the various drivers. Junior wants his old friends as his pit crew while Colt offers him a good job but with Colt's pit crew. There's also the lovely Marge (Valerie Perrine), who Junior falls in love with, although she seems to be perfectly happy with whatever man is around.

I have to admit that I'm not much of a NASCAR fan, partly because I've reached a point where if I want to watch sports I want to watch things were people are competing more directly against each other than against the clock. (Yes, I know there are strategies and what not in car racing.) So I tend not to be interested even in things like swimming or track and field but sports like tennis or hockey or soccer. Still, I couldn't help but get the feeling that there was a bit of a cursory nature to the movie, like when I watch a documentary where I actually know a bit more about the subject.

On the other hand, even though I don't care much more NASCAR, the movie does entertain and is clearly a pretty well-made movie. The atmosphere came across as authentic, and the racing scenes aren't badly done. Bridges gives a good performance as Junior and is clearly the lead above everybody else, but all the supporting actors do a fine job as well. And it's got the memorable Jim Croce song "I Got a Name".

It's a shame that The Last American Hero is out of print on DVD, because it's a movie that deserves to be better remembered.

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