August 2022

Arts & Letters

‘The Old Man’ and the CIA

By Craig Mathieson
Jeff Bridges faces his spycraft past in this Disney+ espionage thriller

In this stately espionage thriller, which is emotionally involved and physically brutal, Jeff Bridges plays a long-hidden spook who has to go on the run. His character, a former CIA field officer with the apt name of Dan Chase, is pursued not just by his former employer, but also by the ramifications of past decisions and the resulting guilt that Chase has long wrestled with. When he hears an intruder in his house, the ageing spy springs from his bed, gun in hand. But when he’s confronted by a ghost from his past bearing judgement, Chase is stuck to the spot like a guilty supplicant.

The quest in the first season of this Disney+ series is not just to stay alive, but to atone for youthful mistakes and leave a legacy for those you love. “You had no idea what I did and who I am,” the widowed Chase warns his daughter, the unseen Emily, and that line serves as both a threat from the character and a promise from the show. Bridges, the most engaging and naturalistic of Hollywood stars, makes Chase a wily protagonist – a cold-blooded killer who consults his doctor about cognitive impairment, the caring father who threatens others with destructive vengeance. The unnerving twist is that you’re never sure which iteration ultimately holds sway.

In adapting Thomas Perry’s 2017 novel of the same name, creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine never rush the storytelling. Revelations, including flashbacks to Chase’s service with a Mujahideen leader (with the young Chase played by Bill Heck) in 1980s Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, are economically parcelled out, and there are long, nuanced conversations that establish the personal dynamics. John Lithgow plays Harold Harper, an FBI assistant director, former friend and colleague uncomfortably roped into the manhunt, while Amy Brenneman’s Zoe McDonald is a guesthouse host who gets caught up in Chase’s flight. Her character doesn’t merely react to Chase, she challenges him.

Since the 2008 Liam Neeson action flick Taken, the film industry has cashed in on ageing leading men coolly dispensing violent retribution. The Old Man does not shy away from this, but with the 72-year-old Bridges boasting a grey mane and Chase’s plethora of prescriptions, it leans into the part’s mortality. The intricately choreographed action sequences have a bruising immediacy, with Chase out-thinking younger, stronger adversaries. The first two episodes are directed by Jon Watts (Spider-Man: No Way Home) and he crafts a masterful hand-to-hand struggle, illuminated by car headlights, that is a combative chamber piece where Chase’s opponent moves through condescension, anger and panic.

The bones of The Old Man are a familiar genre piece, but the themes and flourishes mostly enhance the narrative. The Afghanistan flashbacks can feel lacking, if only because the masterful Bridges isn’t in them, but there are lengthy conversations included here that are quietly riveting. In other words, the kind of scene normally cut due to pacing concerns. Professionally and personally, the central characters play the role that suits them, but the show suggests that after long enough you’re no longer aware who that has made you. “The world is full of monsters,” Chase is reminded. “Sooner or later we all take our turn.”

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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