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Star in Reserve

Robert Redford and the power of understatement.

Dec 2, 2013, Vol. 19, No. 12 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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There is only one person on screen. We hear him in a brief voiceover at the beginning of the movie, after which he speaks a total of 40 words during the 106-minute running time. What we do is watch this man as he copes with a disaster at sea. The movie is called All Is Lost, and it’s nothing short of amazing.

Robert Redford

Robert Redford

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Robert Redford plays the man. He had his first hit 46 years ago in Barefoot in the Park, and what was true of him playing a young newlywed in that romantic comedy, and the cooler-than-cool Sundance Kid, and a con man in The Sting, and a British adventurer in Out of Africa, and a storefront lawyer in Legal Eagles is true of him at 77 in All Is Lost: His power as an actor comes from withholding.

Indeed, Redford is the foremost exemplar in Hollywood history of a great truth about movie stars: They capture the public imagination by keeping some fundamental part of themselves inaccessible. If movie actors are too open, too friendly, too desirous of the love of their audience, no matter how attractive they are, they will eventually come to seem overbearing. After all, they are being projected on a screen that is 30-feet tall and 70-feet wide. They are objects of infatuation, and everyone who has ever experienced a crush knows how infatuation can become more intense when the love object stays out of reach. 

Redford played that part in The Way We Were (1973), when he served as the cinema’s ultimate male love object—the morally ambiguous golden boy for whom everything has come too easily—paired off with the over-intense Communist girl, played by Barbra Streisand, who had to have him no matter what. And even when she gets him, she doesn’t really have him, because no one can.

Redford came to fame in the midst of the Method-acting histrionics of the 1970s, but represented the very opposite—always keeping it in reserve, keeping himself at a remove. He had, and has, such economy that he does his acting mostly with his wildly expressive blue eyes.  

This means that at the few moments when he does let loose, it feels like a jolt of pure energy. There’s a great example at the end of a cute caper film called The Hot Rock, from 1972, in which the dominant emotion Redford expresses is quiet irritation with his manic brother-in-law (played by George Segal, who is wonderful but exactly the kind of overly needy performer whose time as a star was therefore shortened). Redford exits a bank, having pulled off the perfect heist. He is on Park Avenue in New York. He has to meet his brother-in-law a few blocks uptown. He starts to walk. Then a little faster. Then he begins to break out into a run. He gambols up the street. He’s suddenly full of joy, and so are we.

There is no joy in All Is Lost; this is a movie about purpose, concentration, focus. Redford’s character is (I surmise) on a solo voyage around the world. He’s in the Indian Ocean on a sailboat called Victoria Jean. He’s asleep in the cabin when there’s an odd noise, and water begins rushing in. A shipping container that must have fallen off a huge cargo vessel has slammed into the side of his boat and torn a hole in the worst possible spot—disabling his communications equipment.

For the next hour and 40 minutes, this man does everything he can to save his boat and to save himself. He does not talk aloud, so we can only watch him as he moves about. It almost seems as though Redford is doing nothing in this movie, but of course that’s another aspect of the power of the withheld performer. This movie is gripping from first to last, and we see almost nothing but his face and body. Nothing is anthropomorphized here; the boat does not become a character, and there is no volleyball-turned-best-friend (as was the case with Tom Hanks’s solo turn in Cast Away). There is only Redford, and he’s awe-inspiring.

Indeed, the man Redford plays is himself a character only to the extent that he is the embodiment of a profoundly admirable and very prosaic quality: competency. Redford’s character is skilled, careful, and knowledgeable, and doesn’t waste his time with excess emotion. Redford’s peerless ability to remain self-contained on screen is the perfect match for writer-director J. C. Chandor’s vision for this extraordinary piece of cinema—a story of a man keeping his wits about him in the most desperate of circumstances.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.

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