[With Jason Bourne set to open this weekend, we’ll be taking a look back at the original Bourne trilogy. These reviews will contain spoilers since the movies have been out for years. Click here for my review of The Bourne Identity and click here for my review of The Bourne Supremacy.]
In 2004, the post-9/11 American had begun to take shape and The Bourne Supremacy reflected that change. It provided a conscious subtext, but the movie remained first and foremost an action-thriller. But by 2007, the change in our country was no longer worthy of a simple observation. The change had produced a feeling, and that feeling was anger. We had been misled into a war, and the government was taking extraordinary powers against Americans in the name of protecting Americans. The Bourne Ultimatum is unapologetically political, which is its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. Director Paul Greengrass still delivers a pulse-pounding blockbuster that retains the same intensity of Supremacy, but he pushes audiences to not only recognize the seismic shift in our country, but to confront our complicity in it.
The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum are essentially one big movie. Ultimatum backtracks and looks at the time between Jason Bourne’s (Matt Damon) confession to Irina Neski (Oksana Akinshina) and his arrival in the U.S. to talk to Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). The movie plays a little ret-conning by changing their conversation from a cool endnote on Supremacy into the turning point at the end of Ultimatum‘s second act. Leading up to their conversation, we see Bourne attempt to make amends for his other killings while dealing with new flashbacks that push his mind even further back as he attempts to remember how he even joined Treadstone in the first place. His investigation ramps up when he finds himself in the crosshairs of “Blackbriar”, a black-ops task force lead by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) who doesn’t have to worry about any red tape. He’s free to use assassins to pick off anyone who might compromise the program, and he does just that when he takes out investigative journalist Simon Ross (Paddy Considine) and later when he has the CIA Station Chief in Madrid, Neal Daniels (Colin Stinton) killed.
Bourne is present when both Ross and Daniels die, but he’s a little too late to stop either. Once again, Greengrass finds a counterweight to Bourne’s near-superhuman abilities. Bourne may be a brilliant tactician and field operative, but he doesn’t have Vosen’s resources, and more importantly, his access to surveillance tools. It’s the perfect cat-and-mouse game: Bourne, an expert at misdirection, versus an organization that can see everything. Bourne’s inability to protect Ross, Daniels, and (back in Supremacy) Marie make the harsh point that the super-spy excels at self-preservation, but doesn’t have the power to protect others. It takes a motorcycle chase, a foot chase, a rooftop chase, and a brutal fight to save Nicky (Julia Stiles), who decided to help Bourne, from one of Vosen’s assassins.
Greengrass always makes his action scenes click together brilliantly. During the chase scenes, he fires up John Powell‘s score and goes to work keeping the momentum firing, although a bit of fatigue sets in during the Tangiers chase since it runs a little on the long side and doesn’t push the plot forward. The plot has the same level of intensity as the action scenes even though no punches are being thrown and no vehicles are smashing into each other. Almost every scene is tense, whether it’s Bourne trying to mislead his pursuers, his pursuers working to catch him, or Bourne unraveling the mystery of his past.
The energy doesn’t simply come from the hand-held camera, the skillful cinematography, and the precision of the editing. It comes from a script with almost no fat on it, and more importantly, because Greengrass isn’t using the hand-held camera only as an action device this time around. Surveillance was used but not abused in Supremacy. In Ultimatum, it’s something ever-present, and Greengrass elevates the use of the hand-held camera because the cameraman may as well be another participant working as part of the spy game. And if that’s the game, then we might be in the same boat as Blackbriar.
The use of paranoia is in the grand tradition of the spy drama, and Greengrass keenly plays that emotion to not only reflect America’s paranoia following 9/11, but how it festered when we turned on each other. By 2007, we knew that the U.S. government had been spying on American citizens as part of the “War on Terror”. Ultimatum uses it as a plot device by having even the utterance of the word “Blackbriar” fire up surveillance centers (even though it comes off the cell phone of a British journalist). At the mere mention of a single word, the CIA can invade every facet of a person’s life, and Bourne has to employ every trick he has simply to keep that person alive (and it’s still not good enough to save Ross’ life). Keep in mind: We never see Blackbriar go after a single terrorist. Every action it takes is one of self-preservation.
By putting politics at the forefront of Ultimatum, Blackbriar can be a bit cartoonish and one dimensional at times. There is almost no light in the surveillance office, so they figuratively and literally work in the dark. Without Strathairn’s gravitas, Vosen would be a moustache-twirling villain, and even with Strathairn’s presence, it’s a bit too much when he says to Landy, “It ends when we win.” That jingoistic fervor was certainly part of the War on Terror, but that line of dialogue is a little too explicit. The same aggressive critique appears when Bourne angrily tells Ross, “This isn’t some story in a newspaper. This is real.” And when Landy tries to tell CIA Director Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn) about Blackbriar’s deeds, he decides to take a see-no-evil approach. He’s not interested in right-or-wrong; he’s more concerned with plausible deniability.
And yet, it’s important to remember how angry we were in 2007, and the gross abuses of power we had witnessed. More importantly, the government doesn’t take all the blame in the movie, and that mature recognition is what lifts The Bourne Ultimatum above other paranoia-fueled spy thrillers. Rather than simply retread the third movie to “Bourne investigates yet another hazy memory,” Greengrass makes this memory the most important. He sends Jason Bourne back to his inception and this is where the director absolutely nails his political critique because he makes the American people recognize their own culpability in allowing our government’s overreach in the name of national security.
This need to face our complicity in the administration’s abuse of power likely arose out of the re-election of George W. Bush. Up until that point, we were arguably guilt-free. We were understandably shaken from 9/11, and we had to place our trust in our government since they’re the ones responsible for responding to attacks from foreign enemies. We were scared enough to go to war on flimsy evidence, and then some Americans kept the faith no matter what reasoning the administration was willing to provide for the invasion of Iraq.
But the American people re-elected George W. Bush despite the lies and corruption, and Greengrass believed this re-election came out of fear. To Greengrass, Americans allowed the government to take on extraordinary and extralegal powers because we were scared. Jason Bourne is the creation of that fear and Supremacy/Ultimatum shows the blowback, although the movie makes sure Bourne doesn’t come entirely from a place of vengeance, but a place of investigation. His mission is to find truth, and his adversaries are trying to bury it.
In Supremacy, the pursuit of truth was a noble mission in its own right. Ultimatum shows that sometimes the truth isn’t a redemptive ray of sunshine. Bourne discovers he wasn’t forced into the Treadstone program. He volunteered because he wanted to save American lives, and he agreed to take on the government’s dirty work without asking questions. His first mission may have been the assassination in Berlin, but his first test was to shoot a bound and hooded figure in a corner. The moment David Webb shot that hooded figure, he became Jason Bourne. That’s what it took “to save American lives.”
In April 2004, the prisoner abuse at Abu Gharib was exposed, but the majority of voting Americans re-elected George W. Bush anyway. If beating and humiliating hooded prisoners was what it took “to save American lives,” then who cared? The Bourne Ultimatum doesn’t set out to preach, but Greengrass refuses to ignore what the country had become even though it wasn’t his country (the director is British; it’s not a coincidence that CCTV is used by Blackbriar’s at Waterloo Station when they’re trying to track down Bourne and Ross). If a foreigner couldn’t ignore what our country had become, then why should we be afforded that luxury?
A summer blockbuster should provide an air of escapism, and Greengrass isn’t opposed to providing that. His main character distills using-your-car-as-a-battering-ram into an art. The film is an exhilarating action flick, and it’s worth remembering that Greengrass changed the rules of spy thrillers. Casino Royale owes a debt to The Bourne Supremacy. However, Greengrass didn’t believe that a summer release date for an action movie means the audience should be allowed to turn off their brains. The Bourne Ultimatum has to make some minor sacrifices—the one-dimensional villains, the flatfooted removal of Nicky from the movie, the slightly overbearing political themes—in order to be more than a simple action movie. Those minor sacrifices are well worth it when they make us realize the major sacrifices we made “to save American lives.”