The Gray Man: Story Behind Adapting the CIA Thriller

Yout’s just another day at the office for the Gray Man. Assassin trained by the CIA from the Sierra top-secret program was sent to Bangkok. He has been assigned a basic assignment: To kill a criminal. No further details are provided or required—the Sierra program furloughs American prisoners to serve in the CIA, and those details are above the Gray Man’s pay grade.

The assassin has his weapon trained on the glass ceiling above him, ready to take out the target standing there at a moment’s notice. Then a child appears next to the target and the Gray Man’s rigid moral compass redirects. His superiors are furious, but he continues to hold his fire.

The Gray Man of Netflix’s new movie—played by Ryan Gosling and true to his character in the 2009 Mark Greaney novel of the same name—treads a delicate line between the dark underbelly of his occupation and the harsh light of his signature strict moral code.

“Everyone in the movie is gray in some capacity, and I think it’s really reflective of the way that Anthony and I look at the world,” says Joe Russo, who directed the movie with his brother, Anthony Russo. “Not everyone is all good or all bad.”

This action-thriller, released in theatres July 15, and will be available on Netflix July 22. It is an almost $200 million swing for Netflix. Netflix has struggled in recent months to keep its once dominance. And if it does well—a standard which, given this era of hybrid release models and self-reported viewership metrics, may be hard for anyone outside of the streamer to discern—the Russo brothers have ideas for building out a “Gray Man” cinematic and TV universe. The books include 10 by Greeney, and there is a 11th book due to be released next month.

The Russo brothers, despite directing several action movies, including four Marvel films in five years, have kept their form. Gray ManTheir mission is to demand accountability from institutions, even when they are only seen in a popcorn film. In 2014’s The Winter Soldier: Captain America, Chris Evans’ ostensibly socially-conscious patriot fights back against a corrupt system. You are here: Gray ManThe CIA is the relevant institution. While the CIA was not involved in the production of the movie, former CIA agents were consulted by the filmmakers. (Greaney’s experience training with military and law enforcement also informed the source material). It is best to be viewed in context of the past 60 years. Gray ManDescribes shifting representations of the CIA in film.

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Film and television: The evolution of CIA

Ryan Gosling

Paul Abell—Netflix

Tricia Jenkins is a Texas Christian University professor of film TV and digital media. She has published a book about the symbiotic relationship that exists between the CIA, the film industry and Tricia Jenkins. Hollywood: The CIA’s Impact on Film and Television2016

Jenkins claims that media representations of the CIA have alternated between two poles since the 1960s. This was around when they first began appearing on television. Before the intelligence service founded an entertainment program in the 1990s, TV and film often represented the agency as nefarious or unethical (see, for example, 1973’s Scorpio or 1981’s The AmateurNevertheless, during the Cold War the CIA tried its best to portray the U.S. as a good country abroad. Once the CIA hired its first entertainment industry liaison officer in 1996, the pendulum started to swing the other way, resulting in hyper-positive representations, as in 1999’s Spies in the Company. These heavy-handed influences have raised serious ethical and legal questions regarding a relationship that some consider propagandist.

Contemporary movies such as Gray Man, “it seems like perhaps that pendulum is starting to come back somewhere in the center,” Jenkins tells TIME, “where the CIA is not the total bad guy, but they are also neither lionized nor vilified.”

Sydney Pollack’s 1975 political thriller Three Days of the Condor—about a CIA researcher (Robert Redford) investigating the murders of his colleagues—heavily influenced Gray Man as well as the Russo brothers’ work on The Winter Soldier. They loved their brothers Three Days of the CondorThey say that growing up was mainly due to its tendency toward social consciousness.

“As artists, when you’re making a big popcorn film or a kinetic spectacle movie, we also try to layer in some brain food, if you want it, about what issues the world is currently struggling with,” Joe Russo says. “This one in particular, there’s a corrupt patriarchy at the heart of the movie. Seems to be somewhat timely.”

There is no way to reconcile individualism with community.

Chris Evans is back with the Russo siblings in their Netflix action thriller, “The Gray Man.”

Paul Abell—Netflix

Gray Man, also known as Sierra Six or Six, was born to a mentally and physically abusive father. Six, the adult Six, is sentenced to prison for what he regards as a noble act of violence against his father. He is forced to live a double life as a slave to a shadowy organisation, where he finds himself again in the hands of a man who trains him to murder for a living.

Enter Lloyd Hansen, Evans, reteaming alongside the Russos). He was a former CIA recruit and was fired due to sociopathic tendencies such as impuls control issues and the use of unauthorized torture. As a free-agent assassin, Lloyd is hired by the CIA’s Denny Carmichael (Bridgerton’s Regé-Jean Page) to find and kill the Gray Man.

“It’s really a pugilistic parable about two gentlemen who are different sides of the same coin,” Joe Russo says. “One of them leans towards humanity and the other one leans away from humanity—that also seems to be an issue that we’re struggling with in the world right now: individualism versus community.”

The CIA Gray Man is torn, as Anthony Russo points out, between those who believe in the chain of command and responsibility for one’s actions and those who operate without accountability. It’s an essential problem that exists today, he says, in how people and nations deal with one another.

The line that runs through two decades of TV and film.

Chris Evans is Captain America/Steve Rogers, Sebastian Stan Winter Soldier/Bucky Bars in Civil War Captain America

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The theme of optimism versus cynicism, told through an individual or a pair of foil characters (think: Captain America and Tony Stark), threads together the Russo brothers’ oeuvre, even in their earlier work in comedy. The Russo brothers’ comedy work is not complete without In Arrested Development, for which the pair directed episodes between 2003 and 2005, Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth is driven to cynicism by his eccentric family. This is In The CommunityThe Russos made episodes in this series from 2009 to 2014. This character arc was reversed: Jeff Winger, a former lawyer, learns how to be optimistic after being sent back at community college.

It is also evident in their work: A lot of it includes Gray ManThe film, which draws heavily on the films the Russo brothers grew up watching at the theater, is the inspiration for the book. A curated series at New York City’s Paris Theater extending into next week includes several of these formative works, from The Piano Player To The Wild Bunch, Red DesertTo Heat. Gray ManMuch of the darkness in comedy owed to, Lethal WeaponMovies by John McTiernan.

“Experiences of watching movies that my brother and I shared together are now what we try to replicate for audiences,” says Joe Russo. “Which is why we like populist filmmaking, which is why we like broad-appeal stories—because our intent is to bind community together through film.”

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