Tuesday, August 21, 2007

What's In A Name - The Bourne Finale

The Bourne Supremacy had a perfect closing scene; Jason Bourne limping away from a Russian housing project after trying to make some kind of amends to the daughter of the first people he ever killed. Unfortunately, or perhaps inevitably, the film makers felt it was necessary to tack on another scene, in which Bourne calls in to Pam Landy, the CIA agent who seems to be on his side, for some banter and to drop the bon mot "Get some rest Pam, you look tired."

This was cool and edgy and proved that he could see her from wherever he was calling and oooooo that's the way Bourne is: everywhere and nowhere all at once. It's not that it was a bad scene, and it did set up some very specific possibilities for the third movie, but there was something just so perfect about that scene in Russia. Bourne is alone and on the move, but to where, and why? He may have accomplished the immediate task he set for himself, but his journey is not nearly done.

The Bourne Ultimatum does something awesome which won me over the instant the film began. It begins at the natural end of the 2nd film, with Jason Bourne limping through the cold Russian streets. The plot of this film, in fact, takes place almost entirely between that moment and the phone call at the end of Supremacy. It's a great choice since it immediately toys with audience assumption of how this is all going to go down. Landy gives Bourne his real name in that phone call so an easy guess going in is that Ultimatum will be all about how, now that Bourne knows his name, he'll go in search of his roots and perhaps join the family grocery business, assuming the powers that be let him. Instead, the film is all about that name, and Jason finding his way back to it.

During the press tour for The Bourne Ultimatum a question began circulating about who would win in a fight: Jason Bourne or James Bond. Setting aside the logical fallacies of the question (they're both fictional characters, set in different eras, blah blah blah) as a fan of both Bourne and Bond I do find it an interesting conundrum. Here are two characters who are highly trained secret operatives revered for their stylish violence and abilities to extricate themselves from impossible situations.

James Bond is really more of a superhero than a convincing spy, like a Bruce Wayne who knows how to have a good time. He's an effective but high maintenance errand man. He goes where he's sent, he gets the nuclear bomb diffused, he fights with henchmen, to the death if necessary in order to get that secret formula. There's no question that James Bond can be lethal, but somehow he always finds room in his suitcase for a really nice suit and time in his schedule for Pussy Galore.

Bourne is a mess. He's a down on his luck amnesiac with limited people skills. His battle is personal, because his use as a tool has expired. There are no suits in Jason Bourne's world, not for him or any of the operatives sent to kill him. They cultivate the look of the down and out backpacker. They spend their down time in dingy flats and hotel rooms waiting for the anonymous text message sending them to their next assassination. They do not spend their down time playing cards in Biarritz.

The operatives in Bourne's world are not much about name recognition either, or names period. If anything, names are a liability. The last thing anyone wants is a famous secret agent, which is how Jason Bourne finds himself in trouble in the first place. He wakes up with amnesia and asks the logical next question. What's my name? In the process of trying to answer that question, he goes from being a reliable "asset" to a dangerous loose cannon who is, god forbid, making his own decisions. In this case the answer to "What's in a name?" is everything.

"Bring the asset online," announces a CIA operations officer. What he means is "tell the field agent to kill" but it is said so matter-of-factly it somehow transcends euphemism. To call someone by name is to acknowledge their humanity. Certainly it's easier for everyone involved to "bring the asset online" then to "tell Omar to kill Nicky please". The desk lackeys might get squeamish.

As for the asset, a name just gets in the way there too. If you want to create a person willing to carry out any order without question, a key requirement is to disconnect them from outside influence. Even for the most ethically challenged organization, it would be a tall order to eliminate every single person who ever knew a person named, say, David Webb. So you destroy David Webb instead, and replace him with a blank canvas, awaiting instruction. Inconvenient demands from sources like the payroll department require that you call them something, but it hardly matters what. If the agency responsible for training them could get away with calling them all John Doe, they probably would.

As Jason gradually unearths pieces of the puzzle of himself, much effort is put in by powers that be to convince Jason Bourne that he was always a willing participant in the creation of the monster they made him. Although they do go so far as to prove that he signed up to be erased and replaced with a killing machine called Jason Bourne, they never prove that they lived up to their end of the bargain.

It seems logical to me that there's an inherent promise between an organization that demands, or programs, total fealty and those that agree to give it. If you want blind loyalty, you're promising that your vision is clear enough for both of you. If you train a person to kill for you unquestioningly, based on, say, the argument that the protection of our nation from threats is more important than the soul you're asking them to sacrifice, you're promising that you wont use them to kill the pizza delivery guy for fucking up your order. If an organization, or a nation, wants unquestioning loyalty, it behooves them not to give questionable orders.

I'm not saying it's a reasonable arrangement. Given human nature, it seems doomed to failure. But this is the rationale provided by the organization that created Jason Bourne. "Who is it?" Jason asks the first time he is ordered to execute someone. "It doesn't matter," he's told. The person has been deemed a threat to the nation. The person is dangerous and deserves to die because we say so. To question orders is to question the inherent rightness of your country and its cause. When the black bag is pulled off the head of Jason's first kill, the kid does look an awful lot like the pizza delivery boy though.

"Look what they make us give," a dying agent says to Bourne in the first film. Although the agency which created them both has demanded they become enemies, death reveals they are soul mates. In the final film, it is Bourne who utters these words, asking the agent about to kill him if he even knows why he's been sent. It's not just Jason Bourne who is the hero of The Bourne Ultimatum, but all of the anonymous agents, dutifully destroying their own identities and souls so that men in suits in glass office buildings can keep their twisted secrets safe from each other.

The Bourne Ultimatum ends the same way The Bourne Identity began; a body floating in the water. I've heard many people say that the end seems to suggest even more sequels to follow, but I don't agree. As cool as the Bourne movies are, and as much as I've enjoyed them, they were always and ultimately about one man's search for his identity. The wet guy in the first movie had no clue who he was or how he got there, but the man who drifts away at the end of Ultimatum knows, finally, who he is and where he's going. As tempting as it is to imagine future sequels and their names (I'm rather fond of The Bourne Catastrophe), continuing the story from this point would transform the character into a comic book hero, instead of the interesting complex mess of a person we've come to appreciate.

That said, now that I've seen The Bourne Ultimatum, I believe I have an answer to the question of who would win in a fight. Jason Bourne could kill James Bond using nothing but a tea towel and a phone book. He would use the vodka from Bond's martini to sterilize his wounds, and limp away, there being no sexy woman in a Ferrari to pick him up.


Season said...


It's 1:01 am in my little corner of the world and my alarm is set for 6:30 am, at which time I will rise to face another work day (so please excuse all typos and spelling errors). However, I came upon your Blog and couldn't shut down my iMac until I'd read your views on my latest obsession--the Bourne trilogy.

I've been tempted to write a similar review for my own Blog, but having just been thoroughly amused and impressed by your delightful prose, I'll simply bow to your greater insight and sparkling wit. May I admire you? :)

I would, however, like to comment on something you wrote. You referred to Bourne and his 'asset' sibs as being eternally 'suit-less' and living out of backpacks in seedy hotels, all the while waiting for their cell phones to ring with their next kill. It seemed in the first Bourne film as if all the assets, including Bourne, had careers, lives within which they appeared to fit seamlessly, and suits. When Marie checked out Bourne's closet she discovered many suits hanging neatly on hangers. Manheim (the German asset who killed Conklin) wore a suit and was in attendance at some high-powered meeting when he was activated by Treadstone. And the Professor was a music teacher.

I would imagine even Desh and Paz (the two assets in Bourne Ultimatum) also had jobs and lives allowing them to blend seamlessly within society in a Jason Bourne 'everyman' kind of way.

Having said all of the above, I agree that Bourne and the assets are able to live, and get, down and dirty in a way 007 could never image.

I really enjoyed reading your comments, though I'd hoped you'd included an opinion or two about Bourne and Nicky Parsons. Please visit my Blog, Http://teaonasnowyday.Blogspot.com.

-- Season

Anonymous said...

I do not think he meant they are literally suit-less, I think he meant that they do not choose a suit as a uniform as Bond does. As you stated, they wear suits when their lives demand that of them.

And for the record, any past Bond would have been killed before being able to utter a nonsensical comedic remark, but as for the new Craig Bond... it would be a good fight, but I think Bourne would still win. He might have to limp away, though.