Why bother watching The Gray Man? I haven’t seen it, I’m probably not going to see it, but it’s certainly going to be awful and boring. You might be reading this and thinking “What a short-sighted and presumptive line of thinking from someone who considers herself to be a film writer.” I would like to counter this by pointing you to two pieces of evidence:
1) This very annoying interview with the film’s directors, the “visionary” Russo brothers
2) The movie looks bad, and I dislike their Marvel movies as well
Perhaps if the “visionary” Russo brothers were directing that mythical Community film, I would have higher expectations (the Russos did tend to helm the most dynamic episodes of the popular NBC sitcom, alongside numerous episodes of Arrested Development; sitcoms, of course, the typical medium that blockbuster directors given $200 million budgets should start in).
Ok, maybe I am being a little harsh and presumptive. Maybe The Gray Man isn’t actually as bad as many, including Paste’s Jacob Oller, are saying it is. No matter—I still know that it’s a much better use of your time on this finite planet to check out one of the many other quality conspiracy thrillers helmed by directors who never claimed that “auteur filmmaking is only 50 years old” and “movie theaters are elitist.”
Here are 10 conspiracy thrillers to watch instead of The Gray Man:
Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy
Comprised of Klute, All the President’s Men and The Parallax View, Pakula’s conspiracy triptych has been dubbed the “Paranoia Trilogy” for good reason. While obviously three films and not one, I would be remiss if it didn’t include all three for this list. Each film carries the foreboding sense that one is being watched, listened to, followed by some powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing force that holds your very life in their hands, escalating in threat film by film until it reaches all the way to the highest governmental level, with the real-life account of the Watergate scandal.
Based on the real life of Frank Serpico, Al Pacino stars as the titular undercover cop. Serpico, an outsider eager to make a difference from the inside, is determined to expose corruption within the NYPD at the expense of his livelihood within the workforce. But when Serpico decides to go public with his claims so an investigation can go underway, he places a target on himself for the entire police force. Sidney Lumet’s gripping crime drama showcases a stone-cold classic Pacino performance (that was eventually parodied by the It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia gang).
In between The Godfather and The Godfather Part II, Francis Ford Coppola directed a little film called The Conversation. It features the all-timer Gene Hackman role of Harry Caul: An isolated, paranoid, jazz-loving surveillance expert increasingly tormented by the moral dilemma of his newest job. He and his colleagues are hired to bug the conversation of a couple talking to one another in San Francisco’s Union Square. The result? An ambiguous exchange that may mean the couple are in great danger. Tormented by a past job turned fatal, Caul’s well-being degrades as he becomes far too invested in the couple’s fate.
The Manchurian Candidate
A platoon of brainwashed American soldiers is sent home in the aftermath of the Korean War, and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) is perceived by his men as a hero. But Captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra), the platoon’s commander, begins experiencing strange nightmares that link directly to a dangerous plot involving Shaw, and Marco sets off to uncover the conspiracy at hand. This film was also remade in 2004 by The Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme, starring Denzel Washington, if you’re looking to double the bang for your buck.
While recording sounds for a low-budget slasher flick, Philadelphia sound effects technician Jack Terri (John Travolta) comes across something he shouldn’t have heard: A car plunging into a nearby creek. After he manages to rescue a young woman from the wreckage, he discovers that the killed driver was a governor and presidential hopeful. Puzzled by the circumstances of the “accident” while investigating his tapes, Jack becomes tangled up in a dangerous web of conspiracy that could take his life. This seminal Brian De Palma thriller is based on Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blowup from 1966.
The China Syndrome
After accidentally witnessing an accident at a nuclear power plant while on the job, reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) wants to make the incident go public. The plant supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) even suspects that the plant may intentionally be in violation of safety standards. But Wells, her cameraman (Michael Douglas) and Godell find that there is a vast conspiracy afoot that would prefer these little nuclear indiscretions remain a secret. The film received backlash from the power plant industry when it was released in 1979—12 days before the Three Mile Island accident.
Based on the real-life story of Charles Horman—a leftist American journalist who was executed following the U.S.-backed Chilean coup of 1973—the film follows American businessman Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon) who travels to Chile to investigate the disappearance of his son. Having received little assistance from the U.S. consulate, Ed and his son’s wife, Beth (Sissy Spacek), soon realize that the American government is enacting a cover-up in support of the newly instated Chilean dictatorship.
Enemy of the State
When a corrupt NSA agent (Jon Voight) conspires to have a congressman assassinated, in order to ensure insidious surveillance legislation is passed, footage of the murder ends up in the unwitting hands of father and labor lawyer Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith). Suddenly, a target is pinned on his back, and he’s accused of a crime he didn’t commit. As a cover-up follows suit, Dean must team up with an ex-intelligence agent to exonerate himself and get the rogue agent off his back. The Tony Scott thriller features an ensemble cast including Gene Hackman, Regina King, Lisa Bonet, Gabriel Byrne and Barry Pepper.
Starring the late, great Robert Forster as a tough TV news reporter, Medium Cool follows Forster’s John Cassellis as he takes on capturing a nation on the brink of social upheaval—specifically 1968 Chicago, right before the turmoil at the Democratic National Convention. But he discovers that his network has been working with government authorities and using his news stories to help them. Director Haskell Wexler bridges fictional and non-fiction elements in addition to utilizing cinéma vérité-style documentary filmmaking.
Oliver Stone’s controversial, political epic examines both the events that lead up to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and the alleged conspiracy and cover-up in the aftermath. Adapted from district attorney Jim Garrison’s book On the Trail of the Assassins and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs, the film focuses on the perspective of Garrison (Kevin Costner), who takes legal action against Clay Shaw, a New Orleans businessman who allegedly participated in a governmental conspiracy to kill JFK.
Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.