For an action-hero fantasy flick, The Bourne Ultimatum offers head-spinning editing and thorny plot complications along with a savvy political parable about the outrageous arrogance of our present administration. Bourne, as we know from the first two installments in the trilogy (The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy) is a killer-for-hire out to retrieve his real identity, which has so far lead him right back to the government protection agencies like the CIA, FBI, and NSA that here look as nefarious as they probably are but much more efficient and effective. Bourne is on the run—although through much of the film, he actually walks remarkably slowly, for a man with killers breathing down his neck—from the “assets” of these agencies, hired guns charged with obliterating Bourne before he uncovers the secret operation through which he was trained and set loose by a loose-cannon organization as a US-backed agent of terror in his own right.
Our man Bourne walks/runs through the film riddled with regret for his occupation, suffering frequent and debilitating flashbacks that hint at the brutality of the training that turned him into an assassination machine. Across Matt Damon’s face run subtle hints of regret, from a man haunted by the ethics of a person he doesn’t even really know he is. Because of Damon’s nuanced, always interesting performance, the film becomes less about state-sponsored terrorism and more about a man intent on avenging the obliteration of his own soul. Every fight Bourne engages brings him a step closer to his own morality, to the ethics of being truly human.
The film’s villains represent government agents who take power way too far into their own hands. Much as our current president, who just succeeded in muscling through legislation (however temporary) that increases his powers of warrantless surveillance, these CIA spooks are outfitted with computers connected to listening and covert spying devices that cancel the presumption of privacy. They harness surveillance video cameras trained on street corners, in stores, and in stairways to instantly create ever more precise and clear pictures of Bourne and his allies trying to escape their gaze and their control.
Nearly on demand, director Paul Greengrass (director of United 93, about which I blogged last year, and The Bourne Supremacy) implies, the CIA and FBI can track a subject’s intimate movements in public or private places, and access cell phone records whether or not a subject’s placed a call (in fact, a powered down cell phone leads them to the source who leaked information about Bourne’s true past to a British journalist). This micro-access to a man’s movements, the film argues, robs him of his soul, but because Bourne’s super-intelligence (honed by those he now defies) outwits his handlers, he’s able to preserve not only his physical but his psychic integrity.
Psychology, too, falls into the wrong hands in Ultimatum. A villainous psychologist (his PhD from Stanford highlighted in one shot) originally conceives the training that breaks Bourne down into a lethal, remorseless assassin. The psychologist in the service of evil, like most men who break the ethical rules of scientific inquiry, gets back some of his own when Bourne retraces his past and arrives where he began, in the doctor’s oily, imperious presence.
One of the pleasures of Ultimatum is watching Bourne outmaneuver his enemies with little more than his hands and his head. For a contemporary action film, this hero carries very few toys. His hands, of course, are weapons enough, but he accomplishes most of his escapes with quick, creative thinking (and a cell phone or two) instead of violence, simply outsmarting his competitors. The fight scenes, though, are choreographed with a balletic style (apparently, Greengrass meant them to look dancerly) that makes them seem much more about skill and precision than about violence.
In a scene close to the film’s end, the man sent to kill Bourne has apparently been badly hurt in a car accident. Bourne, who (miraculously) wiggles free of his own wrecked vehicle, limps to the assassin’s car window, stares at him with something that might be compassion, and walks away. When, of course, the killer revives and returns for one final face-to-face confrontation with Bourne, he asks why Bourne didn’t kill him. Instead of answering, the hero asks, facing the muzzle of the killer’s gun, “Do you even know why you’re killing me?”
It’s a poignant, rather than cheap, moment, partly because Damon asks with just enough irony and intelligence, and partly because this assassin-for-hire is man with swarthy skin and a perpetual shadow of a beard, which makes him look vaguely Middle Eastern. As he and the white hero confront each other on a rooftop, perched at an edge ten stories above the East River, the man is unable to answer Bourne’s question, and slowly lowers his gun. Although the exchange provides a necessary plot point, it also inevitably refers to US involvement in the Middle East, in which so many men have no idea why they’re killing each other, except that they’ve been sent to do the dirty work by other men with more power. When they stop being cogs in someone else’s wheel, they recover their humanity and their empathy.
There’s something almost feminine in Bourne’s woundedness and perpetual grief (his girlfriend, another agent, was murdered in the first film), despite the thoughtful virility with which he eludes those who would kill or capture him. His real name, in fact, turns out to be David Webb, not a bad choice for an individual who single-handedly confronts the Goliath of the US intelligence community. Jason Bourne (named perhaps for Jason, the Greek god whose mother saved his life as an infant by pretending he was dead, who grows up to retrieve the Golden Fleece) is consigned to history, the once new-born progeny of an evil machine intent on winning at all costs. Webb prefers the connectedness of history to the eternal present of psycho-military techno-industry that created Bourne.
If Damon/Webb proves strangely feminine, the film forces its actual women to demonstrate their masculinity or be killed themselves. Joan Allen, playing a capable high-level officer from another agency, finds herself set up by those she’s come to assist, so that if their effort to stop Bourne fails, she’ll take the fall. Striding through her scenes in sensible slacks and sweaters, Allen’s perpetually pinched expression keeps her thinking but also makes her look rather comical. She’s obviously the ethical center of the film, but she’s given nothing to do but wait for Bourne to deliver the goods she needs to uncover the agency’s misdeeds and get the villains arrested. That she finally testifies before a panel of senators in an empty legislative chamber underlines that she can’t truly be visible and powerful in this eternally male world, even though she’s succeeded in rooting out corruption.
Likewise, Julia Stiles walks (and runs) smartly through a throw-away part as Bourne’s temporary helpmate, turning against the agency that employs her to help him move. The couple narrowly escapes death and soon part ways. Stiles’s only effective action seems to be cutting and dying her hair over a stained and rusty bathroom sink, finishing with a surprisingly chic new cut in which to board her train for elsewhere.
But then, as all the excessively patriotic, masculine, testosterone-driven trailers before Ultimatum emphasized, these action hero movies really aren’t about the women, and at least here, the film forces neither Stiles nor Allen to bear the indignity of being Bourne’s romantic interlude or simply eye candy.
So I’ll take the flick for what it is, and be happy to embrace its brilliant photography and kinetic editing along with its refreshingly pointed allegory about the imminent downfall of powerful, headstrong men who think they can get away with anything. Would that it were true.
The Feminist Spectator