November 18, 2013 -- Robert Redford leads a busy life. He doesn't appear very often in films these days, but when he does you have to sit up and take notice. In this film he plays a man hundreds of miles out to sea, alone in a damaged sailboat. Nobody else appears on screen with him and there is almost no dialog in the film. This is a one man show. One man against the sea.
Redford plays a determined, resourceful man who does all he can to survive. The movie starts with a voiceover of Redford reading what seems to be a note in a bottle written in the hope it will be found and read by his family after his death. He writes that he tried his best to survive and he hopes he has led a good life.
In 1958 the legendary Spencer Tracy starred in “The Old Man and the Sea,” a similar kind of story based on a story by Ernest Hemingway. Like that old man, Redford, now 77, but not looking that old, is a man who knows his boat and he knows the sea. While sailing in the Indian Ocean, he encounters a lot of bad luck. First, his boat strikes a floating cargo container, which bashes a hole in the side of his boat. Water leaks in, shorting out all his electrical equipment, including his radio.
The man has no way to call for help. He patches the hole with fiberglass and tries to sail to the nearest land, but then runs into fierce storms which tear open the patch. His boat sinks. He then moves to a life raft. He crosses a shipping lane, hoping to be spotted. Though huge cargo ships churn past him, nobody sees him. He grows weaker from lack of food and water. He puts a note in a bottle and throws it overboard.
The bulk of the film is composed of his attempts to survive using his skills as a seaman. He doesn't panic, even when the boat is turned upside down in storm. He approaches his problems methodically and intelligently. He makes a bilge pump handle out of broomstick, he learns to navigate with a sextant, he makes a device to distill fresh water out of sea water. He gathers the supplies he will need to survive from his sinking boat.
Even through all that, he approaches his fate differently than a young man would. He has lived a full life and he is prepared to leave it on his own terms. There is a dignity about this man, even in the most severe and life-threatening circumstances.
I am a sailor myself, and I can appreciate the steps he takes to survive. One can quibble a bit about the way this is depicted, but basically, it is believable and this guy knows what he is doing. Redford's performance is very strong. He is especially good at displaying exhaustion as he works hard to survive. The film shows us how hard it is to sail a boat in these difficult circumstances.
While the film is impressive, it does suffer from the limitations imposed by the script, the lack of other characters and the lack of scenery besides the sea, the boat and the life raft. The pacing is also a bit slow. People who are not familiar with sailing vessels of this type may also not be able to follow some of what happens on the boat. Despite these inherent limitations, I found this to be a compelling film. It rates a B.
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