All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Robert Redford looks poised to accomplish something only three performers before him — Laurence Olivier, Michael Caine, and James Whitmore — have done, receive an Oscar nomination for Best Actor and put the entire cast of a film, in Redford’s case, “All is Lost,” in contention. (Olivier and Caine did this in 1972 for “Sleuth,” and Whitmore did it in 1975 for “Give ‘Em Hell, Harry.”) Should Redford earn the Oscar, he will be the first person ever be given Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Director. (He won the Oscar for directing “Ordinary People” in 1980.)
Making such history would not hold a candle to the intelligent, in-the-moment, affecting performance Redford gives in “All is Lost.” His character’s expressions of anticipation, his quickness to address any fresh calamity, the clarity of his thought processes, the looks of hope, frustration, resignation, etc. create a bond between the actor and the audience. You know what Redford’s character, named simply Our Man, is experiencing by watching his face. Expressions are critical to “All is Lost” because Redford, alone and adrift in the Indian Ocean, has approximately 10 words of dialogue following his voiced over reading of a note he reads at the top of the film. The actor’s skill at conveying Our Man’s responses, competence, concern, consternation, calm, worry, resourcefulness, relief, resolve, fear, bitterness, and acceptance propels J.C. Chandor’s movie more than the myriad calamities that befall Our Man once the yacht he is sailing solo in the sea near Indonesia is compromised by a collision with a free-floating shipping container that must have fallen off of or been abandoned by a freighter. “All is Lost” ultimately succeeds because Redford makes you care about Our Man and share in his questionable fate.
“Ultimately” is the operative word in that last sentence. After the first 15 of “All is Lost’s” 106 minutes, I had inklings that Chandor’s movie might be another “Gravity,” all photography and no creation of suspense or emotional tie to a fellow creature.
I realize I may be in the minority by feeling or being left cold by “Gravity,” the art in which is pictorial and not theatrical, but I want to be able to empathize with the danger a lead character is facing, to agonize with him or her, to experience worry or concern for the outcome, and to be near tears for a happy ending and in tears from a sad one.
“Gravity” was too-matter-of-fact for my taste. Its director, Alfonso Cuaron, seemed to depend on a desperate situation being enough to elicit audience response.
Chandor leaves more in the hands of the actor and puts Our Man is a setting where machines and technology are of little help. Redford being lost at sea, vast and without the image of the Earth in the background, seems more without resources or support than Sandra Bullock did in the infinite void of outer space. “All is Lost” starts out as if there won’t be enough invention or reactions for Redford to play. Watching Chandor’s movie requires some patience and some optimism that interest in and concern for Our Man will grow. But after a rough patch of a half-hour, during which I admit I considered leaving the theater, involvement with who Our Man is, and respect for his knowledge of seafaring, takes over, and we care for Our Man with a depth Bullock’s Ryan Stone cannot engender.
Chandor keeps us occupied with all that can happen on an open sea. The crises with which Our Man must cope are natural. Yes, you get the sense that he is being tried like Job and presented with more than anyone can handle, but that’s where Redford takes over.
Redford rarely reacts verbally to anything that happens. Why would he? To whom would he speak? Who would listen? Is Our Man supposed to be prescient he realizes an audience is watching him and might be curious to hear anything he has to say?
Of course not. Only once does Our Man even mutter the phrase you think would be his constant litany, “Oh shit.” You don’t know anything about Our Man’s background, education, or sailing prowess. Even photographs don’t give you an idea of whether he has a family or any worldly ties. The yacht gives you some sense he is a man of means. It isn’t a grand boat, but it is comfortable and well-appointed. Its kitchen would suffice in any home. Its living quarters are tasteful and invite relaxation.
You also sense Our Man is an adventurer. He is alone in a remote part of the world and far from land when his accident with the container occurs. The collision is a surprise because Our Man’s boat, the Virginia Jane, is anchored and he asleep when the drifting freight box meets the rear right flanking of the yacht.
So Our Man is either retired or taking a sailing holiday without company.
That’s all we know. Unless Chandor included photo albums, memorabilia, or a recorder into which Our Man spoke the events of the day or his feelings, we have no way of learning the identity or life story of the person about whom we need to care.
Except Redford makes us care. We don’t have to know all kinds of background details. We learn about Our Man by watching him deal with the life-and-death dilemma he faces every minute of every day for what I calculate to be a week.
The first thing you learn about Our Man is he’s smart, responsive, and knows how to take advantage of the tools and equipment on the Virginia Jane. When he wakes to find his craft taking on water, he does an immediate inspection, finds the breach, extracts the yacht from the container, and does a patch job. All of this is performed with total equanimity, an air of confidence that calamity has been avoided and that common sense has prevailed.
Our Man rarely panics. You see frustration, weariness, and fear in Redford’s face, but those reactions, while natural, are momentary. In general, he takes a breath and gets down to business. Over and over again, Our Man must make decisions, and you can see Redford deliberating, weighing options, and relinquishing desired actions for necessary ones.
It is the cerebral side of Our Man that first impresses. He is beset by disasters, minor and calamitous, that would make most retreat, find religion, and wait for their fate. Our Man is clearly not happy about what happens, but he is ready to meet the challenge. Redford springs to action. He is always fixing something or engineering a stopgap measure. The beauty of his performance is he looks as if he’s doing it from competence and knowledge and not from following a book or trying to remember his training like Bullock does in “Gravity.”
Oh, there are books and manuals and charts. When the power is spent on the Virginia Jane, Our Man has a portable compass and sextant ready. This literature seems more like a refresher or a guide. Redford also seems to have a plan about what to do and how to survive to concentrate on living another day.
His resourcefulness binds you to Our Man. He is not helpless in spite of being in a helpless situation.
Our Man is not sentimental. His emotions are subtle. Because they are, they’re more effective. Redford is poignantly wistful as he realizes he must leave the Virginia Jean and resort to a yellow rubber life raft. You see him adjusting to the closer quarters of the raft and how, like an airplane, the raft stores necessary items in compact places, so that much of what Redford needs for a day or two more at sea is at his disposal.
Chandor builds hope into his script. With the portable sextant, a map, and his mathematical skill, Our Man can chart where he is in the Indian Ocean. As calculations are made and marked on the map, you see the life raft getting closer to shipping lanes and have a sense that rescue is imminent, the same sense Our Man expresses as he places an “x” on the border of the sea area where freighters may cross.
The more than happens to Our Man, the more you see Redford using his acting resources. Competence reigns, but despair is evident as even best laid plans fail to bring positive results. Food and water dwindle. When Our Man catches a fish on the tackle stored in the life raft, a larger fish jumps from the ocean and eats it before Our Man can reel it in. That large fish also alerts us that the raft has entered shark-infested waters. Chandor is adept at using fish, sea life, and underwater shots to put the position, size, and security of the life raft in perspective.
As if following Kubler-Ross’s stages of death, we see Our Man’s despair turn into acceptance of what fate might hold. Redford is quite touching in these scenes, an achievement for an actor who is not known for emotional performances.
The last five minutes of “All is Lost” had me on the edge of my seat, unsure whether I would be cheering or weeping at the end of the film.
“All is Lost” can be as much tough going for the audience as it is for Our Man and Redford, whose physical performance is remarkable for a man age 77, the physical demands of the role being almost as great as the intellectual and theatrical challenges.
Patience is required. One man, an open sea, and natural phenomena compounding an accidental setback, can be wearying. There are times when you want “All is Lost” to move on. There is a scene or two that could be cut. There are moments you wonder if you’d rather watch the movie or find a coffee shop and read while sipping a skinny mocha latte.
If you put in the effort and trust “All is Lost,” you’ll be glad you stayed. Besides seeing a monumental performance by a Pantheon actor, you will engage in Our Man’s perils and decisions and be justified for your involvement.