Robert Redford: When all is lost

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There is certainly no other actor who can command our attention -- our empathy, our loyalty, our love -- with such efficiency.

- A.O. Scott

Even at the age of 77 there are few more admired symbols of American optimism than Robert Redford. The magnetic actor, who starred in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Oscar-winning director of Ordinary People, the tireless promoter and producer of The Motorcycle Diaries, the founder of the Sundance Film Festival, the activist who supports the rights of Native-Americans and LGBT communities, and the environmentalist who has fought hard against the ratification of the Keystone XL pipeline, exemplifies the best of the United States like no other performer. For this reason, Redford was the perfect choice to play the central role in the enthralling film All is Lost.

The movie asks: how does a man survive when he loses all of the illusions and accoutrements that keep him afloat? Redford's character, referred to simply as "Our Man" in the credits, is alone on a sailing boat somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. He is wealthy enough to be engaged on a solo voyage on an expensive boat in a distant locale. There is a ring on his wedding finger that appears to be designed in the form and colour of one from the American Southwest. He has at least one child who has left him a card that he has not read. He does not say more than a paragraph of words in the 100 minutes of the movie; the ingenuity of this film is that it presents a compelling, meaningful, action narrative that is almost completely devoid of dialogue.

The story begins with the main character waking to find water gushing into his boat: the hull has been pierced by an adrift metallic shipping container, holding a load of children's sneakers presumably made in China. The metaphor invokes multiple interpretations: on one hand the symbol is suggestive of the Asian country's relationship to American power, while on the other hand it can also be taken to symbolize the dangers associated with technological breakdown.  The main character however is up for the challenge: he methodically frees the boat, patches the hole and even has the equanimity to take time to shave: he is in control of the situation. This first trial however opens the gate to numerous others, and the protagonist will face the blind volatility of the sea, the threat of unblinking predators, and the indifference of commercial shipping boats that follow their pre-set computerized timelines. All of which will require him to cut the cord to the main vessel, board a lifeboat, and eventually, in a circle of fire, lose that craft as well. He will be left with nothing, and what is left when nature threatens and technology fails, when there is nothing left to grasp in an infinitely unconcerned ocean?

Like the recent movie Gravity, the main character is an American floating in unconquerable space. In Gravity however, redemption comes along the lines of mainstream society's favourite unambiguous trope: the individual is always potentially resilient because they have a reservoir of willpower that they can invoke when all their moorings have been cut. All is Lost, in contrast, is more perceptive: its conclusion is less self-indulgent but offers equal redemption.

Thomas Ponniah, Ph.D, is an Affiliate of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin America Studies and an Associate of the Department of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University.

Photo: Sam Javanrouh/flickr

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