So you cast Alfre Woodward in The Gray Man. I appreciate it!
Credit: Michael Kovac/Getty Images for Netflix
Welcome to Fix It, our series exploring the film and TV projects we love — except for one small change we wish we could make.
Despite being one of the most watched movies on streaming right now, The Gray Man failed to impress most critics. But I have a simple suggestion for the Russo brothers’ polarizing Netflix action blockbuster: more Alfre Woodard.
As former British CIA chief Margaret Cahill in The Gray Man, Woodard, one of the greatest actors of the 21st century, appears in two scenes that total about eight minutes of the two-hour-and-six-minute film. In one scene, Cahill recruits Sierra Six (Ryan Gosling) to protect the niece of his host Donald Fitzroy (Billy Bob Thornton). In another absolute steal of the show, 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 sends the encrypted disk of damning evidence. Corrupt CIA officer Denny Carmichael (Regé-Jean Page) can’t find him. Neither can his deputy Suzanne Brewer (Jessica Henwick). So disgraced ex-agent Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans) is brought in to recuperate. The most valuable asset in the entire film is sent to Cahill — retired and living in Prague — but she has less than 10 minutes to demonstrate her importance.
Yes, the Russo brothers and co-writer Stephen McFeely took the time to include more women in the very male-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, whom Netflix describes as “the man who trained [Six] and briefly shelters him in the late pages of the novel.” For the film, the character was changed to Margaret Cahill, the former head of the CIA’s British bureau. (De Armas’ character, Agent Miranda, was also added to the film adaptation.)
“We know that women are in charge in the office, 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 wonder why it was a man in the first place.”
But if you’re adapting a character anyway, the door is already open to adding a little more nuance, complexity and screen time — especially when you’ve got a monarch of realism in the cast, armed with a subtle expression and believable gravitas in the otherwise-best action movie needs. Did you see Woodard’s incredible performance in Chinonye Chukwu’s Clemency? The gray man is happy to have her here.
After 34 minutes, Woodard first appears in a flashback when Six is summoned to Cahill’s office at the CIA station in London for a meeting with Fitzroy. The whole scene has a real Golden Eye vibe, and Woodard brings his own brand of steely M authority to it all. Fitz explains his situation: someone at the CIA office in Washington “accidentally leaked” his address. So, Six’s mission is to watch over his niece, Claire (Julia Butters).
“I wanted the child to have a normal life and Margaret helped me give it to her,” Fitz explains, specifically using Cahill’s name.
“Any number of vile assholes would love to see him and his family dead,” Cahill says, explaining that they asked for CIA security but were turned down by Carmichael.
Here she is!
Credit: Screenshot: Netflix
The scene lasts one minute, at most. But I have so many questions – how did Cahill help Fitzroy let Claire live a “normal life”? Why would she go to such trouble? Cahill and Fitz seem close enough friends that she uses her position to protect her family, so tell us some stories from the good old days, eh? Woodard is no stranger to turning gold from his brief screen time. Just look at her small but memorable 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 creepy story or two with an eyebrow raise, please.
Cahill only appears in one more seven-minute scene, about an hour and two minutes in, when Six and Miranda go to her apartment in Prague to retrieve the encrypted disk. Interestingly, Lloyd calls Cahill “the one [Six] trusts the most,” as the mustachioed villain takes off Fitz’s fingernails one by one for the name. Fitz relents, offers Cahill. But wait, aren’t they old friends? Didn’t Cahill give Claire that extra protection two years ago? Wouldn’t it be a big deal for Fitz to give up his friend? At least give us a flashback to Thorton and Woodard in Cahill’s office, happily tossing back whiskeys, thinking about that close call in Kyoto or something.
In Prague, Cahill is in poor health, sitting in his dimly lit but elegant living room with a firearm at hand. Once the codes are exchanged, Cahill, Six and Miranda have a brief conversation in the kitchen. It is indicated that he has three months left to live. Woodard imbues the former CIA chief with a characteristically stoic, professional determination that we’ve only had a minute to appreciate so far.
“If you say anything sympathetic, I’ll shoot you,” Cahill declares, instantly slapping Six’s sentimental hand and getting right down to business. Of course, she’s already bypassed the encrypted drive—”I always get in,” she says gleefully—and starts schooling everyone on the data.
“Don’t 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 a rigged getaway car before sacrificing herself to Lloyd’s mercenaries to buy them time to escape. Here, Oscar nominee Woodard delivers the Gray Man’s rather wooden, often clichéd dialogue with a steely, understated perfection that the film doesn’t quite deserve:
“Oh doll, whatever they pay you, it’s not enough.”
The gravity of her sacrifice is most acutely felt in the headquarters of evil. “Did we just kill Margaret Cahill?” a shaken Suzanne stammered, dropping her name with all the weight of solid gold.
In these two scenes, Woodard does what the film doesn’t: He gives his most important characters the gravitas they deserve, especially given the sacrifices they make without thinking. Spending a few extra minutes with Cahill’s character would have made sense, and it wasn’t completely out of the question since the writers were already tweaking the character. With chaotic characters like Evans’ Lloyd throwing “zucchini” and “cookies” 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, folks. Eight minutes is not enough.