The Gray Man, Harvard Elites and State-Sponsored Murder
Netflix just dropped its high octane action movie The Gray Man on its streaming service. The streaming service reportedly dumped $200 million into the film’s production budget. While the money shows in its production values and top-flight acting, the storyline and plot don’t quite measure up.
This is surprising since the movie is directed, written, and produced by the Russo brothers (and others). The Russos are the dynamic duo of filmmaking: Their commercially released films have grossed nearly $6.7 billion worldwide on combined production budgets of $1.2 billion. Netflix is betting big on The Gray Man.
In addition to being a well-produced, high-budget action film, The Gray Man’s central plot revolves around a conspiracy hatched by intellectual elites who met at Harvard University. Harvard University probably isn’t happy. Neither are any of the other Ivy League schools or elite institutions. (Notably, Anthony Russo is an Ivy Leaguer, graduating from the University of Pennsylvania).
At the center of the relentless action is Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling, Drive, La La Land, Blade Runner 2049). He’s an elite assassin, trained by the CIA to go after bonafide bad guys. When Six discovers one of his targets is one of his own, he begins to second guess the people who run the program. The program’s founder, Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton, Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball, Faster), has “retired.” Now, the program is run by previous underlings Denny Carmichael (Rege-Jean Page, Mortal Engines, Sylvie’s Love) and Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick, Star Wars: A Force Awakens, Underwater, The Matrix: Resurrections).
It turns out Carmichael and Brewer met at Harvard, where they became fast friends. Now, they are working their way through the opaque CIA organization labyrinth to create their own deadly fiefdom.
When Six doesn’t relent, psychopathic mercenary Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, Captain America Marvel films, Gifted, Knives Out), is hired to kill Six and recover a mysterious jump drive with crucial information on Carmichael and Brewer’s conspiracy.
Recruited out of prison by Fitzroy, Six suddenly finds himself the target of a conspiracy of elites—all trained at Harvard—who have turned the program into their own personal hit squad. More on this below.
The plot of The Gray Man, unfortunately, is transparent. The movie is sustained by a large, excellent, experienced cast. At times, the film seems more focused on introducing all of these characters as a set up to the anticipated franchise.
Fortunately, the characters represent a variety of motivations and aspirations: Gosling as the hero, Ana De Aramas (Blade Runner 2049, Knives Out) as Six’s kick-ass junior partner Dani, Thornton as the stoic and loyal mentor, Alfre Woodard as the ethical but pragmatic handler, Julia Butters as the innocent and only true victim. The villains round out the ensemble with their own strengths and quirks. Page is excellent as the calculatingly villainous Carmichael, Henwick plays Brewer as a villain with enough empathy to be human, and Evans is adequately disturbing as the psychopath Lloyd Hansen.
This cast saves the movie from its thin plot and gives life to the possibility of a franchise. Without it, The Gray Man falters on a seemingly never-ending series of scenes that do little more than increase the body count of bad guys.
An Action Hero Who Experiences Human Pain
The Gray Man has a few movie making virtues.
Its fast pace keeps audiences engaged.
The dialogue has inspired moments. The back and forth between Six and Claire (Julia Butters), Fitzroy’s innocent but whip-smart teenage niece, reveals important clues to their characters. These elements help audiences make sense of their motivations, relationship dynamic, and future decisions.
Six is also shown feeling real, physical pain. He is not a superhuman robot able to fall out of two and three story windows without getting hurt.
Unlike many other action films, Six stumbles, and is temporarily incapacitated by physical trauma. When he falls off a bus, you really believe he felt the pain and disorientation. He experiences mental and physical shock.
The ability to feel and experience pain and physical trauma humanizes the stoic assassin. It also creates tension that is desperately needed. Rather than waiting for Six to kill the next bad guy, audiences will be asking how he is going to get out of the next predicament.
Poking at Elites and Elitism
What may be most surprising—and refreshing—is the repeated on-screen mention of Harvard University. Harvard is clearly a euphemism for the intellectual elite. The contrast to Six’s rough, pedestrian background and outlook is intentional.
While the David versus Goliath trope is common in cinema, the fundamental tension in The Gray Man appears to be obvious social commentary. Despite his lack of formal education, Six outwits and perseveres based on training, instinct, focus, and a fundamental sense of right and wrong. The actions and arrogance of the elite in the CIA are comical, bordering on absurd.
While the “everyman” heroism is inspirational, putting self-important Ivy Leaguers at the center of the plot is a direct challenge to the elite status of these institutions and their graduates. Not only do Six’s handlers believe they are smarter than everyone around them, their Harvard network and implicit trust from these relationships, even among psychopaths, is the foundation of their conspiracy.
Carmichael, Brewer, and Hansen’s status as intellectual and social elites create the hubris on which the plot of The Gray Man flows.
The Gray Man is a Well Executed Action Movie
The Gray Man would have likely done well in commercial theaters and could easily have been a summer blockbuster. The Russo Brothers strike entertainment gold again, even if the story doesn’t rise to high cinematic art.
Unfortunately for many viewers, Netflix is using The Gray Man as a way to stop its hemorrhaging of subscribers.
Nevertheless, The Gray Man may be good enough and popular enough to jumpstart a franchise. It may be the milestone Netflix needs to become a serious player in major movie production.