Robert Redford’s legacy is actually the subject of The Old Man and the Gun, in which he plays Forrest Tucker, an elderly ex-con recidivist and inveterate thief who still robs banks for fun in 1980s Texas. You can’t avoid the story’s association with the showbiz hucksterism of the arena where Redford has lived most of his life — Redford being one of those finicky Hollywoodians who pretends to disdain the frivolity of his profession. But it’s also hard to square the Tucker character’s questionable, supposedly affable behavior with the realization that Redford’s film legacy isn’t as delightful as filmmaker David Lowery pretends.
It’s a dreadful fact that Redford’s most famous film image as Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men (1976) has inspired noxious career narcissism in several generations of journalists. Media clowns such as CNN’s Jim Acosta and The New Yorker’s Ryan Lizza with visions of ambitious, bland Wasp Redford/Woodward (teamed with Dustin Hoffman as partner Carl Bernstein) in their heads, merely act out politicized self-righteousness. Thanks in part to Redford, the legitimacy and integrity of modern political journalism has been corrupted. This theft of integrity is woeful compared with the tall-tale burglary and crime in The Old Man and the Gun. Still, Redford winks at the audience just the way Tucker cajoles his partners in crime.
There’s a folk-cinema aspect to this movie that mixes a “mostly true” story with references to other films. It comes from the way Lowery misconstrues movie history. Collaborating with cinematographer Joe Anderson, Lowery approximates the Panavision imagery and almost neutral palette of 1970s road movies — a touchstone of his breakthrough film Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which deliberately evoked the period when filmmakers examined American social habits through picaresque stories (often crime tales) set in the South and Midwest.
Redford’s Tucker, his two elderly sidekicks (Tom Waits and Danny Glover), and the middle-aged widow (Sissy Spacek) Tucker meets on the road extend that ’70s legacy through a smiley, gun-flashing continuation of the long-past rebellion against financial institutions and authoritarian police that liberals apparently still cling to. But the spirit of eccentric, ragtag individuality that Lowery borrows from such ’70s landmarks as Badlands, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, Going in Style meant something entirely different in the days of counterculture dissent when Redford first achieved stardom. Now, when he and cast face retirement, dissent has broken down into indefensible #Resistance antics.
Casey Affleck, Lowery’s regular alter ego, plays Texas police detective John Hunt, who is fascinated by Tucker’s freewheeling, “gentlemanly” crime spree. (Hunt dubs them “The Over-the-Hill Gang,” spoofing on “The Hole-in-the-Wall Gang” in Redford’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.) Affleck’s mild confusion personifies the film’s ’70s-influenced ambivalence about law and order. (Redford and Affleck both wear fake moustaches borrowed from The Sting.) Hunt suggests the casual amorality of Millennial liberalism: His black wife (Tika Sumpter, whose bedside reading includes Nikki Giovanni poetry) and adorable biracial children signal an advanced social view that empathizes with Tucker’s personal, one-man revolution. (A film clip features ’70s icon Warren Oates vowing, “If I’m not grounded, I’m going into orbit.”)
Lowery’s movie nostalgia is less portentous than his previous exercises in Millennial artiness, especially the forced romanticism of last year’s A Ghost Story. The Old Man and the Gun is agreeably larky, especially Waits’s improvised “freeze sailor!” childhood reminiscence and the moment when Spacek’s wistfulness is meaningfully lit by the glow of a car’s receding taillight. Yet it all feels like a crock. Its attitude toward American individualism is unconnected to recognizable experience. Lowery’s attempt to analyze Tucker by revealing his past (Elizabeth Moss in another pathological, vengeful portrayal) feels uncertain. It lacks the genuine benevolence that complicated the Seventies American renaissance, as in Jonathan Demme’s Handle with Care (a.k.a. Citizens Band) and still evident this year in the aplomb of Alan Rudolph’s Ray Meets Helen.
Instead, The Old Man and the Gun repeats that useless enchantment with crime always celebrated in heist movies, the most useless of all genres. Even Sam Peckinpah barely redeemed the heist genre in The Getaway (1972), except when pausing in astonishment at human perversity and during cinematographer Lucien Ballard’s visual essays on existential action. Peckinpah and Ballard embellished genre clichés with feeling and perspective. The heist genre binds Lowery to the legacy of undistinguished ’70s Redford films such as The Sting and The Hot Rock, where his roguishness came across as unappealing and smug. That smugness is also the essence of All the President’s Men, and more people realize it now — all too late.
Maybe Lowery intended The Old Man and the Gun to be a film-smart metaphor that distills Redford’s movie stardom. But if this ceremonial celebration combines Redford’s matinee-idol success with some notion of his career’s cultural-political gravitas, then Lowery doesn’t know enough about film and its impact on political history. (During a montage of Tucker’s 16 prison escapes, a brief clip of the terrific-looking young Redford as the ex-con in Arthur Penn’s The Chase seems misappropriated.) The superficial liberalism that defines such Redford films as The Candidate, Three Days of a Condor, All the President’s Men, Ordinary People, Quiz Show, Sneakers, The Legend of Bagger Vance, The Company You Keep, The Conspirator, Indecent Proposal, and the horrendous Truth was always unacceptable. And even a couple of films I liked, Lions for Lambs and Up Close and Personal, don’t make up for the political arrogance of a typically shallow Hollywood titan.
Idolizing Redford when he’s playing a cute criminal — but also an all-American rascal whose career happens to have a political agenda — reminds us that Redford can’t shake off his Dan Rather impersonation from Truth. Redford’s duplicitous legacy is part of the current crisis of cultural division: Movie stars no longer help us believe in justice as a common endeavor.