One of The Greatest Actors Of All Time Enters Peak TV With A Bang
The Old Man Review
Is Jeff Bridges the most underrated actor in history? There are few rhetorical questions that seem to have such an obvious answer. How could one of the most iconic actors in history only get four Academy Award nominations over the first four decades of his film career — none of them for such brilliant roles as the leads in Crazy Heart, The Fabulous Baker Boys and of course The Big Lebowski? Why on earth did it take thirty eight years after his stunning debut in The Last Picture Show to finally win for Crazy Heart? If I’m being honest two of the greatest performances he’s ever given came after the Oscar: the Coen Brothers remake of True Grit where in my opinion he made John Wayne’s performance look like a caricature, and Hell and High Water where he played a retiring Texas ranger chasing down two bank robbers on a quest that even he came to admire. Equally astonishing is that, especially in the era of Peak TV, where senior actors are being routinely given lead roles in TV series — and in the case of some performers like Ed Harris and Michael Douglas, doing their best work in decades — that’s it taken him nearly sixty years since his work on Sea Hunt to finally make his TV starring debut. And all the remarkable considering that while it was shooting he survived both a bout with COVID and lymphoma. Watching the first three episodes of FX’s The Old Man, it has been more than worth the wait.
Bridges plays the title role, a man named Daniel Chase (maybe), a man who has lived in the same town for nearly twenty years, whose wife has passed of Huntington’s a few years earlier and who still appears in his nightmares, a man whose only companions seem to be two Rottweiler’s. Then one night an intruder breaks into his house. He shoots him dead, and then in a completely different tone of voice calls 911. He opens a floorboard in his house. He talks to the deputies calmly and serenely, and the next day he leaves, with plans for a new identity.
That same day, a retired FBI director named Harold Harper received a phone call about a file that’s been dead for thirty years. He’s recovering from the death of his son, but he instantly goes back into the office. Not long after Chase receives a phone call…from Harper.
It may tell you all you need to know that Harper is played by John Lithgow, an actor who despite his six Emmys to date still seems like he’s been undervalued. Harper and Chase have a history. Harper knows why Chase is being targeted — it has something to do with an Afghan warlord that Chase worked for when the Afghans were considered the good guys in our fight against the Soviets. We see a bit of Chase in flashbacks (Bill Heck looks remarkably like a young Bridges). We know his mission was not warranted by the FBI. We knew he took a lot of actions that now would be looked unfavorably on. And we know that there is a connection between Chase and the man’s wife. Harper says Chase has two choices. One will result in his death, because no matter how skilled he was as an operative, he has been out of the game too long. The other involves going to ground but he will never see his daughter, his sole connection to the real world, ever again. Chase considers both options. He calls his daughter. And then he makes his choice. The two agents who go after him find out that they have gotten then they bargained for.
Chase now ends up in his new residence. There he meets a divorcee named Zoe. (Amy Brenneman, in my opinion, finally achieves the potential she has only occasionally hinted at ever since her arrival in TV in NYPD Blue nearly thirty years ago.) She doesn’t like his dogs. Chase manages to persuade her that he should stay by cooking her breakfast. Reluctantly a connection forms. They go out to dinner. Both share details about their lives that neither would show to another person. Driving home, Zoe lies about his identity at a traffic stop almost without thinking. They spend the night together.
There are more details I should give. Harper is under intense pressure to find Chase and there is a man in his office that seems determined to get answers. He is working under the auspices of this Afghani warlord and is hated by everybody in the CIA. Why does he want Chase and what does he know? Flashbacks and the third episode reveal some details and it is clear to some of the characters (and perhaps the audience) as to why he is looking now. Chase’s daughter is heard entirely as a voice on the phone in the first two episodes. We are told she has been dead for awhile. Is Chase delusional? No, as we find out in a critical scene when he reveals some of the truth to Zoe. The actress playing the daughter is well known and if you’ve seen the series to this point, you know who she is and the role she has in the story. It is not my place to reveal her identity in this review, save to say the cliché “you’ve never seen her like this” is actually a truth in this case; it’s one of the biggest shocks so far in the 2022 season.
Even if The Old Man had any actor other than Bridges playing the lead (and at this point it’s hard to imagine any actor being able to play him) it would be a brilliant series. The action sequences give lie to all of the ones we see in so many blockbusters and TV series; every time Chase gets into a fight you can hear all the actors groaning in pain as every punch, stab and bullet enters the body. All of the performances are superb, Lithgow reveals depths that continue to surprise you even after all the awards he’s won, and Brenneman has a brilliant scene when she learns Chase’s secrets done entirely by facial expression and the smaller roles gel in ways you couldn’t imagine. Joel Grey has a cameo as a former director of Harper, where he’s painting a landscape. He never turns to face Harper and never raises his voice, but you can see the amount of rage and villainy that are in him in this scene.
But Bridges’ performance takes what would be yet another very good action thriller and turns it into a work of art. Many of his early scenes are either talking to himself or on the phone, the kind of scenes that seem like that of a lonely senior citizen, but even before we learn what he is capable of we can sense the danger that is in Dan Chase. I can’t imagine how Bridges could have performed these scenes in the best of health, much less while in recovery from illnesses that have killed people far younger than him. But there’s never a moment where you doubt the intensity of his work. Like the character he plays, Bridges’ is a survivor.
I don’t know how many people will die before the end of The Old Man or even is this series will be just a one-off or a possibility for a regular show. (It is based on a best-selling novel by Thomas Perry, but in the days where David E. Kelley has regular turned complete stories into multi-season series that is almost certainly irrelevant.) All I know is that the show has everything I look for in a thriller: dusty locations, realistic action and characters with secrets that not even people who’ve spent their lives in intelligence have a hint of (yet). The Emmy race for next season, in my opinion, starts here.
My score: 4.5 stars.