When I wrote my book on William Klein’s Mr. Freedom (1969), I was mostly interested in the way it related to the American cinematic tradition. Although I did try to show how the film arose from a broader narrative history – including literature and poetry – my focus was on how it helps us understand the cultural and filmic terrain surrounding it, as well as how it offers a critique of our current superhero cycle made some forty years before that cycle began.
But as the book was being prepared for publication, and following its release, I’ve become increasingly aware of the rather unforgiving light it also casts on a good number of small-screen offerings here in the U.S. Although there’s something dispiriting in this, as one would hope that a satirical critique released in 1969 would not still be relevant in the most popular entertainment genre of our time, there’s also in it something of a testimony to the lasting power of a radically clear-eyed view of American culture.
For those of you not familiar with the film, it’s a satire about the titular American superhero who travels to France in the wake of 1968 to try to clean the Reds out of that country. Faced with a rather intransigent population, he at first allies himself with a local right-wing group – the French Freedom Forces – and then eventually grows so frustrated that he calls in nuclear Armageddon, reflecting the sentiment of one of the most famous quotations to come out of the American war in Vietnam, in which an officer lamented that he had to destroy a village to save it.
This summer, some fifty-three years later, The Old Man was released by FX (it streams on Hulu). Starring Jeff Bridges, John Lithgow, Amy Brenneman, Alia Shawkat, and a pair of rottweilers (named Dave and Carol), it’s a seven-episode prestige drama wholly reflective of the kind of tough-minded fare – from Yellowstone to Jack Reacher to Black Bird – currently dominating the streaming services. After watching the first episode, a film producer I know in L.A. gushed to me that “It has everything a hit show needs: star power, a great story, and riveting dialogue. And it’s even got dogs!” His sentiment seems to be widely shared. The series has been lauded in the media, holds 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes (for whatever that’s worth), and has been renewed for a second season.
The Old Man tells the story of an ex-CIA operative named Dan Chase (Bridges) who has spent most of his life undercover after a botched operation in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in the course of which he stole the wife of a commander leading the insurgency against the Soviets and fled with her back to America. Now that commander (played in his ’80s incarnation by Pej Vahdat) has discovered Chase’s whereabouts, and is menacing his daughter (Shawkat), as well as threatening to reveal the CIA’s old transgressions in his country. That this is all fairly ridiculous is somewhat beside the point, but worth mentioning. The plot teeters between improbability and absurdity. The action sequences manage to be both grueling and contrived, broadcasting an air of steel-edged realism while using the protagonist’s dogs to conveniently extract him – always at precisely the right moment – from whatever mishap he’s gotten himself into. The construction of the show mistakes sentimentality for gravitas, and the dialogue borders on the interminable. It also treats history in a rather silly way, with characters in the 1980s continually referring to Russia instead of the Soviet Union, as if yearning to emphasize some sort of connection to our own times.
These are all fairly standard television failings, of course. Also fairly standard are the critiques of the show (and many others) that arise when it is seen through the lens of a satire like Mr. Freedom – which does not mean that they are any less searing.
For example, Klein’s film is furiously acerbic about the American war in Vietnam, directly linking that devastating military action (which caused the deaths of some two million Vietnamese citizens) to the insatiable needs of the American economic and ideological systems, but also to the narrative trope of the American hero. In that vein Mr. Freedom himself (wonderfully played by John Abbey) is a direct parody of Captain America, out to save what are in the American hero’s vision the benighted populations of the world from themselves…even if this means destroying them.
The Old Man, tellingly, transports the exact narrative being critiqued by Mr. Freedom to the Afghanistan of the ’80s. There, Bridges’ younger self (played by Bill Heck) is a lethal American operative, who has discerned the only “good guy” in the conflict (the commander played by Vahdat) and decided that he will use his skills to help bring about the defeat of the “Russians” and the ascendency of a free Afghanistan. That he fails is beside the point, for the most telling aspect of this narrative is that it manages to reduce an entire geopolitical conflict to a stage on which this particular white American savior can move through his heroic paces.
In a similar way, the show employs a kind of gender reductionism that has long been subjected to withering critiques by critics and academics, and was incisively parodied by Mr. Freedom. In Klein’s film, the hero is betrayed by the woman he loves – she actually turns out to be a communist in disguise – and in one of its funniest moments, is reduced to a bed-ridden wreck when a child, instead of adulating him, screams that “He’s a fascist!” Which is to say that one of the film’s most precisely targeted critiques is the connection between the valorization of male violence and the traditional filmic presentation of women as malign manipulators. At the same time, it offers the wonderful insight into how ultimately fragile that male hero is: prevent him from being worshipped by kids – at the movies or in comic books – and he will be fatally wounded.
The Old Man engages in the kind of reductionism being targeted in Mr. Freedom from beginning to end. The action of the ’80s story in Afghanistan revolves around the fact that the Afghani commander’s wife turns out to be both duplicitous and sexually manipulative: she is double-dealing with the Soviets, and also seduces the American savior in order to get what she wants. On top of this, the main self-proclaimed thematic idea of the show is about the necessity of fathers taking care of their children. The three aging men in it – Bridges, Lithgow, and Vehdat’s freedom fighter – all claim either literal or emotional paternity of the young woman played by Shawkat, which apparently involves the dire need to shepherd her through her life.
In all of this – like so many recent television shows – The Old Man partakes in the trope that Mr. Freedom identifies as maybe the most destructive in American popular narrative: the connection of on-screen, titillating violence to some of the most socially destructive ideological currents of American history, in an attempt to cleanse those violent impulses and ideological structures. It turns the brutalities of American foreign policy decisions into a forum for exorcising male status anxiety, and asks the viewer to be entertained by and thus endorse – whether consciously or not – the exertion and maintenance of traditional destructive systems of power: the American soldier in a foreign country, the noble man persevering in the face of the duplicitous woman, the daughter whose role in life is to make her father secure in the belief in his own caretaking strength.
But, hey, at least it’s got dogs.
For more information on Mr Freedom by Tyler Sage, visit the Liverpool University Press website.