Sometimes it’s good to catch up. By that I mean it happens that a series arrives while I’m away and by the time I might get to it, there’s a long list of new things demanding attention and review.
The Old Man (streams Disney+) is one I’m glad I made an effort to see when it landed here on a streaming service after initially being on FX. It’s a pure pleasure to savour it, and savour what everyone involved does with what looks like a conventional story.
The story involves an older white male who is required to take dangerous actions that seem unlikely for a man of his age. But this isn’t like one of those movie thrillers in which Liam Neeson is obliged to play the dad as action man. This is a seven-episode drama about the patient pursuit of reconciliation with the past.
Jeff Bridges plays Dan Chase, a man living alone off the radar, with his two dogs. He has dreams about his late wife and his nights are interrupted by multiple trips to the bathroom. He looks grizzled, tired, lonely but intact. Then someone breaks into the house aiming to kill him. He handles the attacker with a blunt but efficient defence. Then he hits the road.
Dan, if indeed that is his real name, is a wanted man. Decades before, he was a CIA operative in several places, but principally Afghanistan where he covertly helped the locals fight the Soviet soldiers after the country was invaded. He killed, supplied weapons, kept secrets and, it seems, became involved with the wife of a powerful man in Afghanistan. His past is very messy and now someone wants him eliminated.
On the road, Dan meets a woman and they seem to like each other. Zoe (Amy Brenneman) is a woman of an age where she’s wise to the selfishness of older men, wary of involvement and suspicious of men who seem to have big secrets. The scenes between the two characters are beautifully done. These are often long scenes, staged quietly, giving the actors space to say a great deal with hesitations and silences.
There is action at intervals, mind you. An early scene in which Dan and Amy are in her car and are stopped by police is a scene that takes your breath away. Thing is, Dan imagines a ferocious way out but we see it, even if it’s in his imagination. And there are further scenes in which you worry about the beating that Jeff Bridges, age 72, is taking, as he obviously does many stunts himself. And you would be further worried if you were aware that during filming, production was shut down when Bridges was diagnosed with both COVID-19 and lymphoma. He has recovered.
Chasing Dan, in a twisted way, is an equally obdurate old man, Harold Harper (John Lithgow), and part of the very coiled plot seething beneath the surface is that Harper worked with Dan in the long ago and he too doesn’t want old secrets revealed. Plus, a secret about the identity of Dan’s daughter, the only person he seems to contact, is revealed to viewers in the early going. Around Harper (Lithgow manages to make the old spy figure both sinister and sympathetic), there are other circles of deception and menace. Harper’s protégé Angela (Alia Shawkat, who played Dory on Search Party) knows too much, while her careerist colleague Raymond (E.J. Bonilla) hasn’t a clue what’s happening.
The intricate plotting (it was adapted by Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine from Thomas Perry’s more action-focused novel) would irritate were it not for the strength of the performances and the pacing. In particular, the chemistry between Brenneman and Bridges is a thing to behold. The characters are given time to chat, idly, over meals and attempt to learn about each other. Brenneman’s Zoe recognizes the familiar in Dan Chase. She’s old enough to have met men like him, even when he thinks he’s unique.
When the lists for best-of-the year are written, The Old Man should be there. It often amounts to mature characters having mature conversations about youth, passion, aging and vulnerability. That’s so rare these days. Catch up with it while you can.