Based on a novel by Thomas Perry, FX’s The old man runs along familiar lines for a certain type of spy thriller. An older badass is brought out of retirement. A game of cat and mouse ensues, reviving old grudges and conspiracies. With no moral qualms about killing to survive, these men struggle to integrate their violent pasts with their desire for peace and domesticity—embodied, of course, by the women in their lives.
The old man
June 16, 2022
Jonathan E Steinberg and Robert Levine
Jeff Bridges and John Lithgow star in this five-part thriller about a retired CIA agent (Bridges) who must go on the run. With hard-hitting, down-to-earth action scenes and convincing performances from the two leads, it’s a satisfying addition to the spy genre – but not a particularly deep or original one.
Jeff Bridges stars as retired CIA agent Dan Chase, who is forced on the run after his civilian cover identity is exposed. In general, this premise joins a crowded field of thrillers starring actors like Liam Neeson, who often draw on the fantasy of boomer-age men as superhuman killing machines. This is a more measured take, leaning more towards John Le Carré than John Wick.
As Chase escapes and/or kills a series of assassins and government agents, we learn about his antagonist, Harold Harper (John Lithgow), a counterintelligence agent who leads a team (including Alia Shawkat) to track him down. Chase and Harper were formerly allies involved in dirty anti-Soviet efforts in Afghanistan. Then Harper rose through the ranks while Chase slipped away to civilian life, married and raised a child. The rules of the genre dictate that dark deeds don’t stay buried forever, but for more than thirty years both men have achieved their own brand of happy endings.
With this type of story, it helps to quickly determine what CIA perspective we are dealing with. Is it the idealized Hollywood version, home to deadly super spy heroes? Or something more realistic that reflects the legacy of the CIA’s disastrous incompetence and toxic American imperialism? The old man tends towards the latter, but still positions itself as a conventional thriller.
Even before we see any flashbacks to Chase’s past (starring an utterly convincing Bill Heck), we know he did terrible things during his CIA days. Likewise, there is no moral superiority among the agents chasing him. The thing is though…Dan Chase is Jeff Bridges. And we all love Jeff Bridges! The show is aware of his inherent likeability, as Chase lulls people into a false sense of security with his benign civilian personality.
For example, when someone objects to their ubiquitous dogs (a pair of deadly, military-trained Rottweilers), they project an endearing aura around a steely, immobile core. Somehow, without triggering a direct confrontation, these people allow the dogs to stay. One such character is played by Amy Brenneman, a plausibly normal middle-aged woman who becomes involved in Chase’s life. To her and to others, his friendliness is not entirely feigned. When talking to his daughter on the phone, he shows himself to be a real family man. As long as you discount all the murders and illegal operations abroad, he’s a nice guy. That’s kind of the point.
Beginning with two episodes directed by Jon Watts (the MCU’s Spiderman Trilogy), The old manThe action scenes are effective without being pretentious. Slow moving and often visibly injured, it’s easy to ignore Jeff Bridges’ tall, broad frame, dressed as a cheerful retirement-age father. But when it’s time to fight, Dan Chase is ruthless. More down to earth than the competence porn of the Bourne films (an inevitable influence on 21st century action), Chase fights his opponents in the dirt, filmed in awkward close-ups. As always, that sense of palpable physical threat has more impact than flashy choreography.
On the surface, The old man is a gripping yet formulaic story. But for a niche audience, this show has outsized meaning as a new project by Black sails Creators Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine. underestimated then, Black sails now has a passionate cult following that celebrates his sophisticated writing and anti-establishment themes. Of course, this makes one curious about what the showrunners will do next.
The old man is a new direction for Steinberg and Levine, moving from a sprawling historical drama to a tight contemporary miniseries. There is some thematic overlap in the way characters interpret the narrative of their lives, particularly in the morally neutral view of Dan Chase’s dual identities. Other than that, though, there’s not much comparison.
For the most part, this is a star vehicle for Jeff Bridges, offering a well-characterized version of a classic formula. The show’s portrayal of the CIA is cynical enough to feel grown-up without delving very deeply into the political context. And while Bridges and Lithgow are obviously superb, the writing isn’t smart enough for the more cerebral spy stuff to really shine. A compelling example of the genre, but not a notable standout.
*Initial publication: June 16, 2022 at 8:34 am CDT
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in science fiction films and superheroes, she also appears as a film and television critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she is the co-host of the pop culture podcast Overinvested. Follow her on Twitter: @Hello_Tailor
https://www.dailydot.com/unclick/the-old-man-fx-review/ Jeff Bridges confronts the past in this familiar but effective CIA thriller