BASED ON: True Life vs. Reel Life in Robert Redford’s ‘The Old Man & the Gun’

Robert Redford

The latest in a series by Father Vince Kuna, C.S.C., USC film-school grad and producer-at-large at Family Theater Productions …

The Old Man & the Gun, written and directed by David Lowrey (based on a New Yorker article of the same name, written by David Grann).

David Grann, author of the engaging account of explorer Percy Fawcett (Lost City of Z, also adapted into a feature film) wrote a brisk abstract in 2003 for the New Yorker of another real life, but lesser known historical figure, Forrest Tucker. Grann’s history takes the reader on Tucker’s six-decade pattern of bank robberies and prison escapes.

Tucker’s life of crime started in teenage adolescence, when he stole a car “just for a thrill,” in Tucker’s own words. To interviewer Grann (click here for the original article), Tucker similarly reduces the description of his subsequent first break from prison to a stark, existential, “Such as it was.” The bank robber’s own self-reflection then, isn’t much of one in terms of introspection. He realized a useful (albeit unlawful) skill for flashing a gun and strong-arming unlucky bank tellers. This was equaled and perhaps surpassed by an uncanny ability to slither out of the tightest controlled prisons –one time spiriting away on a canoe from California’s San Quentin.

Later in life, Tucker would gather a few others into his nefarious band, nicknamed “The Over the Hill Gang.” The three hit larger banks with greater efficiency and of course, bigger scores. During his last years in prison, the article mentions he regretted his life: the betrayal of various wives and a sobering record for absentee parenting. I would tend to believe this, if his statement wasn’t belied by his last robbery at the age of 78, done seemingly for, in my opinion, “the thrill of it.”  He and his wife’s car and house were paid up, so there wasn’t a true monetary impulse for robbing again. Tucker died in prison in his 80s. Had he not been too old to finagle himself out from behind bars a final time, I suspect he would have robbed again.

Whereas the article allows Tucker to pass judgement on himself, director David Lowery provides a better backstory and thus impetus for a life of crime on the behalf of our roguish protagonist.

On the initial heist of the movie, an Over the Hill Gang member (Tom Waits) crosses himself, and the getaway driver (Danny Glover) asks him, who is he praying to now? His tongue-in-cheek response? “Our Lady of Rare and Periodic Attendance.” The robber absorbed something then of faith, but largely dismissed it except in favor of blasphemy on the occasions he sought “spiritual” protection from law enforcement.

This pales somewhat, to the criminal in question, Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford). Tucker boldly confronts detective John Hurt (Casey Affleck) asking if he’s caught the suspects yet. John hesitates to answer, and in that moment, Tucker straightens John’s tie, citing a sartorial habit he learned in Catholic school.

The only theology useful to Tucker lies in its misuse. Looking sharp and charming eases the facility to rob, completing the costuming of a wolf in sheepskin.

I feel the director, himself the son of a college professor from the robustly Catholic University of Dallas, did the main character and story better justice in filling in the origin story — even if that origin details the abandonment of faith. The film admittedly, states in its tagline: “based on mostly a true story.” The director’s embellishing of Tucker’s lack of faith, nonetheless tells a truer story about the nature of crime than Grann’s first-hand interviews of the criminal himself.

Released by Fox Searchlight pictures on Sept. 28, The Old Man & the Gun is currently in theaters. Click here to find a showtime near you.

Image: Courtesy Fox Searchlight Films

Click here to visit Father Vince Kuna’s IMDB page.

Keep up with Family Theater Productions on FacebookTwitter and YouTube.