Despite being one of the most watched movies on streaming right now, The Gray Man hasn’t impressed most critics. But I have a simple suggestion for the polarising Russo Brothers action Netflix blockbuster: more Alfre Woodard.
As former UK CIA chief Margaret Cahill in The Gray Man, Woodard, one of the greatest actors of the 21st century, appears in two scenes totaling about eight minutes of the film’s two-hour, six-minute runtime. In one scene, Cahill recruits Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) to keep his handler Donald Fitzroy’s (Billy Bob Thornton) niece safe. In another absolute show-stealer, she sacrifices herself to buy time for Six and CIA agent Dani Miranda (Ana de Armas).
Cahill is absolutely crucial to the narrative, as the person to whom Six mails the encrypted drive of damning evidence. Corrupt CIA official Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) can’t find it. His second-in-command Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick) can’t either. So disgraced former agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) is brought on for recovery. The most valuable asset in the entire film is sent to Cahill — retired and living in Prague — yet she gets less than 10 minutes to demonstrate her importance.
Yes, the Russo Brothers and co-screenwriter Stephen McFeely did take the time to include more women in what is very men-heavy source material, actively trying to show diversity in the geopolitical world of espionage. In Mark Greaney’s novel, Woodard’s character is actually Maurice Cahill, who Netflix describes as “the man who trained [Six] and briefly offers him sanctuary in the late pages of the novel.” For the film, the character was changed into Margaret Cahill, the former CIA chief of the UK bureau. (De Armas’ character, Agent Miranda, was also a movie adaptation addition.)
“We know that women are in charge in the offices, in the home, and in social situations women are in charge,” Woodard said in an interview with TODAY. “It makes sense that she would be. I’m wondering why it was a man in the first place.”
But if you’re adapting the character anyway, the door’s already open to adding a little more nuance, complexity, and screen time — especially when you have a monarch of realism in your cast, armed with the subtle expression and believable gravitas the otherwise over-the-top action film needs. Have you seen Woodard’s incredible performance in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency? The Gray Man is lucky to even have her here.
34 minutes in, Woodard first appears in a flashback to when Six is called into Cahill’s office at the CIA station in London for a meeting with Fitzroy. The whole scene has a real Goldeneye vibe, with Woodard bringing her own type of steely M authority to it all. Fitz explains his situation: someone in the CIA’s Washington D.C. office “accidentally leaked” his address. So, it’s Six’s mission to babysit his niece, Claire (Julia Butters).
“I wanted the kid to have a normal life and Margaret’s helped me give her one,” Fitz explains, notably using Cahill’s first name.
“Any number of nefarious assholes would like to see him and his family dead,” Cahill says, explaining they’ve requested CIA security but have been denied by Carmichael.
There she is!
Credit: Screenshot: Netflix
The scene goes for one-minute, tops. But I have so many questions — how has Cahill helped Fitzroy let Claire live a “normal life”? Why would she go to such trouble? Cahill and Fitz seem close enough friends for her to use her position to protect his family, so drop us a couple of stories from the good ol’ days, huh? Woodard is no stranger to spinning gold from a short time on screen. Just see her small but unforgettable role as Harriet Shaw in Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, her Emmy-winning guest and supporting roles in Hill Street Blues, The Practice, and L.A. Law. So, give Cahill time to weave a chilling tale or two with the raise of an eyebrow, please.
Cahill only features in one more seven-minute scene, about an hour and two minutes in, when Six and Miranda head to her Prague apartment to retrieve the encrypted drive. Curiously, Lloyd refers to Cahill as “someone [Six] trusts the most” while the mustachioed villain is pulling off Fitz’s toenails one by one for a name. Fitz gives in, offering up Cahill. But wait, aren’t they old friends? Didn’t Cahill give Claire that extra protection two years ago? Wouldn’t this be a huge deal to Fitz to give up his pal? Give us at least a flashback of Thorton and Woodard in Cahill’s office, contently throwing back whiskeys, musing over That Close Call in Kyoto or something.
In Prague, Cahill is in a state of poor health, sitting in her dimly lit but stylish living room with a firearm at the ready. Once codes are exchanged, Cahill, Six, and Miranda have a short conversation in the kitchen. It’s indicated she has three months to live. Woodard instills the ex-CIA chief with the characteristically stoic, professional determination we’ve only had one minute to appreciate before now.
“If you utter anything remotely sympathetic, I will shoot you,” Cahill declares, instantly slapping Six’s sentimental hand and getting straight to business. Of course, she’s already bypassed the encrypted drive — “I always get in,” she says, gleefully — and begins schooling everyone about the data.
“Do not underestimate this target,” Lloyd tells his team as they approach, and he’s right. In Woodard’s hands, Cahill is a pro to the very end, getting Six and Miranda out of her apartment and equipped with a getaway car before sacrificing herself to Lloyd’s mercenaries to buy them time to escape. It is here, that Oscar-nominee Woodard delivers The Gray Man‘s pretty wooden, often clichéd dialogue with a steely, understated perfection the film doesn’t quite deserve:
“Oh doll, whatever they’re paying you, it is not enough.”
Alfre, right back at you!
The gravity of her sacrifice is most keenly felt back at Evil HQ. “Did we just kill Margaret Cahill?” a shaken Suzanne stammers, dropping her name with all the weight of a solid gold reality check.
In these two scenes, Woodard does what the film doesn’t: give its most important character the gravitas they deserve, especially considering the sacrifice they make without a second thought. Spending a couple of extra minutes with Cahill’s character would have made sense, and not been completely out of the question as the writers were already adapting the character. With chaotic characters like Evans’ Lloyd dropping “pumpkins” and “cupcakes” and yelling at Suzanne all over the joint, Woodard’s Cahill keeps the audience anchored to a fleeting form of credibility.
My only request is more, please. This is Luke Cage‘s Mariah Dillard right here, people. Eight minutes is not enough.