Netflix’s latest big-budget action thriller, directed by the Russo brothers, is yet another example of the CIA’s stranglehold on Hollywood in the service of pro-US military propaganda.
The Russo brothers, who have run Marvel’s money-makers like Captain America: Winter Soldier Y avengers endgame, they know how to shoot super kinetic action scenes on a grand scale; we already knew that. Watch the opening fight sequence at Winter Soldier, a spicy blend of spy-movie freneticism and martial arts precision. Or the battle royale that culminates End of the game, for that matter. That’s why people were hyped for the duo’s latest action thriller, the gray manwhich premiered on Netflix on July 22.
the gray man stars Ryan Gosling as ‘Sierra Six’, a convicted murderer who accepts the CIA’s (Central Intelligence Agency) offer to become a black ops assassin on their payroll. The film’s setup is pretty simple: During a routine overseas operation, the Sierra Six discovers that Denny Carmichael (Rege Jean-Page), a rising star in the CIA, has been sanctioning illegal off-the-books operations and orchestrating elaborate cover-ups. to hide his corruption. Soon, the Sierra Six becomes a hunted man, as Carmichael enlists the ruthless and sadistic mercenary Lloyd Hansen (Chris Evans, contradictory and hilarious) to eliminate the threat. Hansen unleashes basically every international assassin he knows against Sierra, including the enigmatic Avik San/Lone Wolf (played by Tamil superstar Dhanush).
the gray man, unfortunately, it has a rather generic and mediocre script, so we never invested emotionally in Sierra Six, even when, for example, he is risking his life to save a colleague’s daughter. Yes, some of the action scenes are competently staged and both Evans and Dhanush seem to be having a good time (the former’s line, “Hello, my sexy Tamil friend” has already become a golden meme). But audiences expected more from the Russo brothers, for obvious reasons.
Yet the film is a textbook example of the way Hollywood uses CIA narratives to push a subtly pro-military message: The story of the Sierra Six and Denny Carmichael is supposed to tell us that the CIA is not fundamentally corrupt, just spoiled by a few eggs. . And even there, the Good Agent is cleaning up the mess created by the Bad Agents. It’s an old narrative shift, designed to deflect institutional criticism with individual exceptionalism. And in this gambit, the gray man you are not alone. Since the late 1980s at least, the CIA has been a major part of Hollywood action movies (the Jason Bourne movies, the Jack Ryan movies, and now the TV show, Jack Bauer in 24, Homeland; the list is endless) and in 21St. century, many of these films were made with the active and constant help of the CIA in real life.
A history of violence
The CIA’s history of media manipulation and Hollywood interventions actually dates back to the 1970s, but the modern era really began in the 1990s, when the agency officially named one of its officers, Chase Brandon, to fulfill functions in Hollywood, so to speak. to improve the image of US intelligence officers in the popular media. Throughout the 1990s, Tom Clancy’s super-patriotic character Jack Ryan became the centerpiece of these propaganda efforts.
Between 1990 and 1994, superstar Harrison Ford played Jack Ryan in a trilogy of films: The Hunt for Red October (1990), patriot games (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994). The overarching theme, of course, had to do with American exceptionalism: Jack Ryan is the only one who can save the day, and is therefore exempt from the regular military rules of engagement. Furthermore, the movies paint a picture of America constantly under attack from an endless array of malicious and unmistakably evil enemies. This allows US military and intelligence officials moral license to, for example, inflict serious collateral damage or torture people for “the greater good.”
In the 2000s, Ben Affleck played a younger Jack Ryan in the movie The sum of all fearswhile his then-wife Jennifer Garner starred in the espionage series Alias, where she plays a sentient CIA super-spy. John Krasinski currently stars as Jack Ryan in an Amazon Prime Video series that has finished two seasons, with a third season on the way soon. The mid-2000s were also dominated by Paul Greengrass’s Bourne trilogy of CIA thrillers, starring Matt Damon as amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne, who uncovers a trail of corruption in the agency. as with the gray manBourne’s films use the good agent/bad agent fallacy to deflect criticism of the CIA.
in his book Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Misleads Hollywood, journalist Nick Schou details the history of CIA interventions in Hollywood. Here’s what the book has to say about the popular TV show 24 (2001-2010), where Kiefer Sutherland plays Jack Bauer, a smart and driven CIA officer who frequently uses torture and the threat of harm to relatives of a suspect to extract information. —Time and time again, such information is vital to the capture of dangerous terrorists. In the post-9/11 media landscape, the show became a major talking point about the efficacy and morality of torture.
“Before HomelandAlex Gansa worked as a writer on the seventh and eighth seasons of the Fox television show 24, the series that sparked a heated debate about how it justified torture as a tool to combat terrorism. It’s hard to conceive of a more blatantly manipulative television show than 24 in the post-9/11 era, with its constant siege by ruthless enemies, countdown clock visuals, and pounding soundtrack, all of which served to heighten the anxiety level of the American people and our willingness to accept extreme security measures in the name of public safety.”
In one of the book’s most damning segments, Schou describes a June 2011 meeting between then-CIA director Leon Panetta and screenwriter Mark Boal, who was then writing the screenplay for Kathryn Bigelow’s film. zero thirty darkabout the capture of Osama Bin Laden, one of the most infamous terrorists of all time.
“According to a report by the Department of Defense inspector general, then-CIA Director Leon Panetta seemed to have stardust in his eyes at the prospect of a Hollywood version of the hunt for bin Laden. The CIA chief hoped that Al Pacino would play him in the film. (The role fell instead to the sopranos James Gandolfini.) Panetta allowed Boal to attend a meeting in June 2011 in Langley that was closed to the press and attended by all the main players in the operation. The CIA chief also gave Boal names of people whose role in the mission was still secret and shared other classified information with the filmmakers.”
Panetta is portrayed here as a star-studded fan, certainly not what the agency had in mind when it set out to improve its image in popular media. But the passage is revealing in terms of the leeway the CIA gave Hollywood writers and directors. The CIA understands the value of Hollywood as a propaganda ally; having the right two or three Hollywood creators on your side is probably worth more than controlling a dozen newspapers or TV stations.
Sierra Six: A Tom Clancy character by proxy?
the gray man is based on Mark Greaney’s 2009 novel of the same name, the first to feature the Sierra Six character. Since then, Greaney has written more than a dozen CIA thrillers with Sierra Six, and clearly the Russo brothers and Netflix are hoping to create a film franchise to match.
Greaney, of course, is best known for his Jack Ryan collaborations with Tom Clancy himself, towards the end of the latter’s career, when he was ill. Clancy died in 2013, but not before Greaney had written three Jack Ryan novels based on the plot outlines Clancy provided. After his death, the famous character of Clancy was taken up by Greaney in four other novels.
In many ways, Sierra Six feels like a Tom Clancy character; the influences are not exactly subtle. Like Jack Ryan, Sierra Six is a somewhat taciturn man who opens up emotionally throughout a long-running series. Like Jack Ryan, he is fully committed to cleaning up not only his own reputation, but also “doing the right thing” in general. In other words, he’s a modern take on the John Wayne stereotype: the conscientious, laconic American hero who lets his guns speak for themselves, more often than not.
And while Clancy’s stories aren’t exactly subtle, they fit the political climate of 2022, it has to be said. The United States is losing faith in its public institutions, but the military (and, by extension, the CIA as well) remain the last frontier, the one thing all of its citizens are expected to wholeheartedly support. In such a scenario, Netflix and the Russo brothers should feel cautiously optimistic; The American public has proven, time and time again, that its appetite for CIA thrillers remains limitless. Despite a somewhat disappointing first outing, I have a feeling we’re going to see a lot more of the Sierra Six in the years to come.
Aditya Mani Jha is a Delhi-based freelance writer and journalist currently working on a book of essays on Indian comics and graphic novels.
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