The Bourne Ultimatum

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.

Bourne again,
The Feminist Spectator

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5 thoughts on “The Bourne Ultimatum

  1. My god you’re a pompous thing. Your editorials are so biased at their core that reading them makes me angry. The only problem with men is women like you who alienate and destroy them. As a self-proclaimed superior force on this planet your writings are tainted. I’m all for feminism if it is coupled with hominism, or better yet, let’s just call true search for equality and fairplay as humanism and forget the splinter self-interest groups of neuroses and damaged psyches that pro-female or pro-male groups promote. The editorial disseminates an unbalanced view of the world under the veil of being sophisticated, enlightened, and thus ‘politically acceptable’, all the while it is just so much dribble.

  2. If you are pompous, then what does that make Ms. Smithers?

    A few corrections:

    Bourne’s girlfriend in the first movie wasn’t an agent, she was an innocent bystander who gave Bourne a ride (escape) out of a nasty situation.

    Julia Stiles also is not an agent. She manages various “safe houses” that the CIA has in various parts of the world. She had a better role in the first and second films, where she had more to do than in “Ultimatum”.

    Speaking as a feminist myself, I think that Bourne’s personality is embryonic in nature, and as such is moving back and forth between the masculine and the feminine sides of his psyche. He is assembling himself, a process that is effortless when we are children and herculean as adults.
    Of course, all three films are also kick-ass movies that the male side of me can’t get enough of. My only criticism with the third film was that there wasn’t enough parkour action. But then I’m holding out hope for the fourth installment!

  3. You said: “There’s something almost feminine in Bourne’s woundedness and perpetual grief (his girlfriend, another agent, was murdered in the first film)”

    Bourne’s girlfriend was NEVER an agent. And she was murdered in the second film.

  4. Thanks to “tommyspoon” and “anonymous” for these corrections. I have to admit that sometimes, I lose plot details like these, and appreciate being reminded of the facts of the story.

    For “tommyspoon,” I, too, like the action part of these films as much as the character study and the plotting. What I enjoy about the BOURNE films is that their action is always justified and somehow never as prurient as in most films of the genre. I like to feel my adrenalin surge as much as the next spectator!

    Thanks to both of you for writing.

    My best,

  5. I like the series of movies and am glad to hear there is a fourth in the works…

    I think Julia was an agent IF by that you mean an employee of the CIA. She, as admitted in the movies, was undercouver as an “American student.”

    Everyone is entitled to their “opinions” as to what they see in people. People’s opinions do not mean that the opinions of other people are, somehow, invalid. As if we are struck “stupid” just because someone thinks we are…

    I don’t like to talk generalities. Feminine and masculine are just terms we use to define some “preconception” of how the genders act or are supposed to act. Why do we place these “limits” on ourselves?

    These “perceptions” are what “make” men want to be tough, strong, and, well, you fill in the rest. Similarly, women are often lumped together as needing to be skinny, pretty, and, well, place your thoughts here…

    Why can’t we all just be ourselves without having to fit into any “preconceived” grouping just to make it easier to characterize us as “part of a larger whole?”

    Seems to me that it is okay to be different and that “different” might make the world go around. Certainly, the Founding Fathers of the USA liked the idea of “differences” being protected–thus the formation of a Republic rather than a straight Democracy.

    Federalist Paper #10… Protect everyone’s rights rather than the preferences of the simple majority. Using our brains, I would argue that we should not try to generalize people into “preconceived” groups just because we can…

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