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October 02, 2007

The Bourne thrillers indict the West for a multitude of sins - but they only prove that a dominant Western motive remains the quest for a fast buck, argues David Womersley: The Bourne Ultimatum - Paul Greengrass

Posted by David Womersley

The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass
certificate 12A, 2007

Some reviewers have argued that the Bourne thrillers offer a parable of the West's general moral taint and guilt. However for David Womersley, Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford, The Bourne Ultimatum proves one thing - that the quest for a fast buck remains a dominant Western motivation.

You've never felt worse. Headaches; night-sweats; amnesia punctuated by flashbacks. You don't know who you are, and you don't know what you've done, except that it was very bad. You have strange, unnatural and powerful skills, but you don't know how you have acquired them. These skills appal you, but you can't disown or disavow them. They hint dreadfully at who you are, and what you have done. You feel like a victim. You fear that you are a perpetrator.

This is the predicament of Jason Bourne, in the trio of films now completed by The Bourne Ultimatum (its predecessors being The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy). Bourne (not his real name, as we discover) had volunteered for a special CIA unit, a "black-on-black" operation of which the code-name was Treadstone. Intensive psychological and physical training produced a squad of super-spooks, distributed around the world, who combined frightening technical accomplishment with a complete moral indifference to the things they are ordered to do - the final element in the psychological conditioning of the Treadstone agents, we learn, is to shoot a bound and gagged man on command and without quibble or inquiry as to why he is being killed or what he has done to deserve death.

Bourne was the most technically-accomplished of the Treadstone squad, but had manifested resistance to the psychological programming, showing traces of ineradicable moral qualms and scruples. Those qualms and scruples surface in an operation which goes wrong, when Bourne cannot bring himself to shoot his target in the presence of his children. He is shot trying to escape from the yacht which was the scene of the operation, and found floating in the sea by a fishing boat. The three Bourne films tell the story of how, from that point, he re-discovers who he is and what he has done, and in the process cleanses the CIA of the rogue officers who had established Treadstone.

At one level, the Bourne films are a clever variation on the spy thriller. James Bond wears hand-cut Italian suits and drives an Aston Martin. Jason Bourne looks on a good day as if he shops at GAP, otherwise perhaps at the local charity shop, and drives whatever he can hustle or steal. James Bond has at his disposal a range of bespoke gadgets made for him by "Q". Jason Bourne kills his enemies with ball-point pens, and blows up houses with toasters and magazines. Bond is the flawless instrument of Her Majesty's Secret Service, who takes on the world's villains and defeats them. Bourne is a renegade whose most desperate fight is against his own former colleagues.

But the Bourne films have resonated for another reason. Bourne's situation - that is, the condition of having perpetrated terrible moral wrongs, which he has forgotten but for which he is driven to atone (has Bond ever said sorry for anything? Bourne can't stop saying sorry) - is a version of the general moral taint and guilt of the West, according to some of its more high-minded critics.

Uncountable and unnameable wrongs weigh us down, and we - like Jason Bourne - will never really know who we are until we have faced up to the deeds done in our name and made some kind of reparation. Slavery, empire, colonialism, the oppression of women and minorities, globalisation, the rape of the planet, the trashing of the climate - no matter how hard we may fight to deny or suppress the knowledge, we know that we are guilty. Like Bourne, the West must cleanse the Augean stables of its collective past, or we will never be at peace. In Bourne's case, this means triggering a wholesale cull of the CIA (where it seems that only the female agents are uncorrupt). In our case, this translates into . . . well, probably the same.

The Bourne films are a parable of the moral failings of the West, albeit one composed in and delivered from the heart of Western capitalism, and so they also exemplify that curious feature of capitalism, namely its freedom from ideology, and its willingness to make money wherever and however it can be made. Once upon a time such "contradictions of late capitalism" would be triumphantly cited as harbingers of its imminent collapse, but it seems just as likely that they have a preservative function. Like Bourne himself, then, the films are in, but pose as not being of.

And in this context the camera-work of The Bourne Ultimatum acquires a more than technical interest. The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman in a familiar Hollywood cinematic idiom. Paul Greengrass took over direction with The Bourne Supremacy, and the cinematography was marked by hand-held camera work. At its best this can be extremely exciting and involving, producing great tension (the scene shot at Waterloo during the rush hour in The Bourne Ultimatum is superb). But this style of cinematography can also be seen as a rejection of normal Hollywood production values, and hence as an aspect of the film's stance of disenchantment with the West.

It is, of course, only a pose. The Bourne Identity is by far the best of these three films: our interest is held by the fact that, in this film alone, Bourne's situation is an enigma for us, and the film's more leisurely exploration of Bourne's moral predicament is more involving. Thereafter, we know the broad facts of the case, and so excitement levels can be sustained only by making the action more and more frenetic - the plot of The Bourne Ultimatum is ridiculously compressed. At the end, we think Bourne has been shot and killed as he sinks through murky water, only for him suddenly to come to life and swim off. This preserves the possibility of a fourth Bourne film, but there can be no good reason to make one. If, in a year or so, one does appear (The Bourne Imperative?), it will be because that dominant Western motive - the quest for an easy buck - proved once more to be irresistible.

David Womersley is Thomas Warton Professor of English Literature, University of Oxford. His previous reviews for the Social Affairs Unit can be read here.


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