Production on The Old Man was temporarily halted in 2020 by both the pandemic and star Jeff Bridges’ cancer diagnosis, and although the actor’s disease is now in remission, those calamities speak directly—too directly, really — to the questions about mortality at the heart of FX’s latest series.
Premiering on June 16, Jonathan E. Steinberg and Robert Levine’s (Black Sails) gripping dramatic thriller (based on Thomas Perry’s novel of the same name) focuses on Dan Chase (Bridges), a widower living off the grid with his two beloved dogs. Dan is a grief-stricken soul, plagued by nightmarish visions of his deceased wife from her dementia-wracked final years, and struggling to maintain a connection with his daughter Emily, with whom he regularly speaks on the phone. His own body and mind are in good shape, but death, it seems, is lurking around the corner — and with it, nagging fears about the regrets that won’t dissipate and the mistakes that have yet to be corrected.
The catch with The Old Man is that Dan’s sense of being something off isn’t just due to his advanced age; it’s also a byproduct of his keen training as a CIA operative, which becomes evident when a man breaks into his home one evening and, with his pooches’ aid, Dan calmly executes the intruder and passes it off to local cops as a break-in gone awry. This is clearly a lie, and Dan quickly hits the road. His pursuers are led by Raymond Waters (EJ Bonilla), as well as by veteran FBI spook Harold Harper (John Lithgow), who’s called away from his grandson — whom he’s raising in the aftermath of his son and daughter-in-law’s untimely deaths —To help spearhead this mission. Harold and Dan share a history that dates back to the 1980s Soviet-Afghan War. Nonetheless, the particulars of that campaign, and the reasons why things went south and compelled Dan to go into hiding for three decades, are left initially vague by Steinberg and Levine’s series, which at the outset fixates on Dan’s efforts to kickstart his creaky body back into special-ops gear — a feat that takes more than a bit of doing.
As that premise implies, The Old Man is running a familiar espionage operation — and one predicated, first and foremost, on the intense charisma of its leading man. In that regard, it’s more than up to the challenge it establishes for itself, generating immediate intrigue and engagement through Bridges ’performance as a seventysomething with a skill set that would make James Bond blush. Bridges’ jovial good humor is seen around the edges of Dan, but for the most part, this is a stoic turn that pivots on the actor’s quiet intensity, here most ably expressed via his stern eyes. One instantly believes him as both a nondescript everyman wiling away his days and nights with his canine companions by his side, and as a ruthless killer willing to do what it takes to survive. The latter is confirmed when, while on the lam, he’s forced to contend with additional CIA adversaries, culminating in a nocturnal skirmish of prolonged brutality.
That fight is orchestrated by Spider-Man: No Way Home‘s Jon Watts, who directs the series’ maiden two episodes as well as serves as an executive producer, and it sets the sturdy formal tone for the proceedings as a whole. Employing some canny CGI trickery to posit the sequence as an apparent single take, Watts refuses to turn away from this extended face-off, the better to highlight the bruising messiness wrought by Dan’s rusty abilities. At the same time, his camera’s fixed gaze on Dan is emblematic of the overarching consideration given to the protagonist throughout. Even in its most genre-y moments, The Old Man is powerfully attuned to Dan’s internal and external circumstances.
Once Dan gets some distance between himself and his enemies, The Old Man begins fleshing out its conceit, introducing additional revelations about his backstory — courtesy of flashbacks starring Bill Heck as the younger Dan and Leem Lubany as his Afghan wife — and also key supporting players. The first of those is Angela (Alia Shawkat), Harold’s right-hand FBI woman and surrogate daughter, who shares a connection with her superior’s deceased relatives. The second is Zoe (Amy Brenneman, back in quasi-Heat territory), the owner of a Massachusetts residence that Dan rents, and a wallscée whom he warms to despite his desire to maintain a low profile. Those two characters increasingly factor into Steinberg and Levine’s plot, and so too does Hamzad (Navid Negahban), an Afghan warlord whom Dan had a fraught relationship with during the 1980s, and who may be involved in this current hunt for him.
“Even in its most genre-y moments, ‘The Old Man’ is powerfully attuned to Dan’s internal and external circumstances.”
The Old Man has a few early bombshells up its sleeve, including at least one that strains believability a tad too far. Yet the real beauty of the series is its interest in the sorrows, disappointments, and yearnings of older age. In the four episodes provided to press, perhaps no scene is more memorable or moving than an understated one in which Zoe relays that her son’s college tuition check has bounced — thereby causing all sorts of hurt and embarrassment for them both — and, while stewing over this miserable state of affairs, Dan instinctively begins making her food in an act of shared understanding and compassion for the screwy, tangled chaos of adulthood. In that and other reserved instances, the show overtly articulates, and then sensitively demonstrates, how truth is often located in silence and empty spaces.
Consequently, The Old Man is more captivating when dealing with universal real-world concerns than with its spy stuff, no matter that its slam-bang action is crisp and its twists and turns are energized. Bridges and Lithgow seize every available opportunity to imbue their archetypal characters with a world-weariness that’s palpable to the point of being crushing, and the material’s somber mood — amplified by a score of mournful cello and visual compositions that accentuate these figures’ alienation and loneliness —Ultimately carries the day. The Old Man frequently feels like a bait-and-switch endeavor, one that uses its genre trappings as a means of investigating the unavoidable disorder of our lives — a situation that proves as surprising as it is, in the end, welcome.