Based on a nonfiction story by Tom Wolfe, which was in turn based on the career of real-life NASCAR driver Junior Johnson, The Last American Hero is a solid character piece elevated by the documentary-style realism of its racing sequences and by uniformly good acting. The screenplay, by William Roberts, is a bit on the thin side, relying on broad characterizations and a hackneyed structure, but the aforementioned strengths help smooth over shortcomings in the writing.
Jeff Bridges stars as Junior Jackson, the movie’s fictionalized version of Johnson. He’s a willful young man living in the Deep South, working in the family business of running moonshine. Junior’s skill behind the wheel comes in handy for evading cops, but because local police know all about the Jackson’s operation, Junior’s father, Elroy (Art Lund), is in and out of jail on a regular basis. When the legal bill related to one of Elroy’s arrests exceeds what the family can afford, Junior steps up deliveries but also joins demolition-derby races organized by an unscrupulous promoter (Ned Beatty).
Soon, Junior graduates to the big time of the NASCAR circuit, where he competes with a super-confident champion (William Smith) and courts a racetrack groupie (Valerie Perrine). The story gains dimension once Junior starts running with a big-city crowd, because his aspirations to independence and integrity wither upon exposure to pressures like the need for sponsorship. In particular, Junior gets into an ongoing hassle with Burton Colt (Ed Lauter), a hard-driving entrepreneur who sets usurious terms and expects humiliating deference. All of this interesting material serves the concept encapsulated by the Jim Croce-sung theme song, “I Got a Name,” because the thrust of the story is Junior’s search for identity.
Bridges is great, as always, winningly essaying Junior’s transition from naïveté to worldliness, and the supporting actors fit their roles perfectly. Lund and Geraldine Fitzgerald provide earthy gravitas as Junior’s parents, while a young Gary Busey adds an impetuous counterpoint as Junior’s brother. Perrine, all blowsy exuberance, captures the damaging caprice of a woman caught in fame’s tail winds, and Smith is understated as a man who realizes his moment in the spotlight is slipping away. Lauter rounds out the principal cast with his petty villainy, providing a formidable obstacle for the hero to overcome.
Much of the credit for this ensemble’s work must go to director Lamont Johnson, whose handling of the movie’s visuals is as strong as his guidance of the actors. Though usually an unassertive journeyman, Johnson surpasses expectations by elevating Roberts’ humdrum script into something memorably humane.
The Last American Hero: GROOVY