Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Bourne Series: A Touch of the Human

At some point fairly late in The Bourne Identity, the first (2002) film in the series culled from the Robert Ludlum bestsellers, the amnesiac hero known as Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) – using impressive secret-agent skills he’s continually startled to find he possesses – figures out that one of an apparently unending series of assassins sent out to hunt him down has located the house where he and his companion Marie (Franka Potente) have spent the night. So he quietly sends their host, an old lover of Marie’s, with his two little kids to safety in their basement, then grabs a rifle and leads the unseen hit man (Clive Owen) out into the woods for a face-off. It may seem like a trivial concern, but I was grateful to the director, Doug Liman, and the screenwriters, Tony Gilroy and William Blake Herron, for having the decency to remove two innocent children from danger before we had time to get anxious over their well-being. It struck me as almost chivalric on the filmmakers’ part to consider the feelings of the audience – to recognize that you can tense up a thriller without making it a sadistic experience.

In fact, that decision is much in keeping with the theme of all four of the Bourne movies, one of the classiest franchises Hollywood has ever devised. And children are a motif that develops that theme in its flagship picture. Bourne’s amnesia is the result of his near-drowning in the Mediterranean when he fails to carry through the assassination of a former African dictator (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) on his yacht, a mission Bourne was sent on by the black-ops CIA program called Treadstone that trained him. When a passing fishing vessel rescues him, comatose, its doctor removes a chip from his hip that contains the number of a Swiss bank account, and since when he comes to he can’t remember who he is or how he got in the drink, his only choice is to go to Zurich. There, in a safe-deposit box, he finds a load of cash in different currencies and half a dozen passports in difference names. Moreover, he has the kind of physical strength, agility, and survival instincts that only a high-level secret agent could possibly have acquired.

The running gag in the first half of the movie is that his body keeps responding to danger in ways that his mind, benumbed by loss of memory, can’t comprehend. The emotional arc of the narrative is his gradual discovery – which elides into the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy (2004) – that he has committed acts that his conscience, liberated by amnesia from the Treadstone training (roughly equivalent to brainwashing) can’t stomach. The bifurcation of his actions, all of which predate the time frame of the movie, and his delayed response to them elaborates on the idea at the emotional heart of The Manchurian Candidate: that though Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), the soldier the Communists have turned into a weapon, has no choice but to obey his handler, when he’s ordered to kill the woman he loves, the only person who has ever accessed his soft, humane side, it destroys him. Bourne isn’t destroyed, but his guilt and sorrow reflect the humanity that Treadstone ultimately failed to drive out of him. Even before the onset of his amnesia, he couldn’t bury that impulse. We find out that the reason he couldn’t pull the trigger on the yacht was that the ex-dictator’s little children were in the cabin. (The mission, tellingly, was to clean up a CIA mess: the target had threatened to reveal the history of CIA activity in Africa if the organization didn’t restore him to power.) So when he acts to protect Marie’s old boy friend’s children, he’s behaving in a way that may not be consistent with Treadstone protocol, but it’s consistent with his own ethics. Ironically, the first time we see a pair of kids in the movie, they belong to Owen’s character (called “the Professor” in the credits): he’s playing with them when he gets the call to go after Bourne, whose resurrection after he botched the mission has made him a CIA liability. They don’t think of him as a human being at all: Conklin (Chris Cooper), the head of Treadstone, refers to him as “a malfunctioning thirty-million-dollar weapon."

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
The movie uses a combination of Bourne’s amnesia and his relationship with Marie to locate the humanity it wants to juxtapose with a dehumanized, dehumanizing CIA motivated by the greed, megalomania and radical self-protectiveness of men in power. Over the course of the series, which continues in 2007 with The Bourne Ultimatum, we meet several: the CIA director, Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), who maintains deniability; a pair of deputy directors, Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and Noah Vosen (David Straithairn) (one’s dirty, the other’s a fascist); Dr. Albert Hirsch (Albert Finney), the experimental behaviorist who hatches Treadstone (Finney wittily incorporates Donald Rumsfeld’s vocal patterns). In the latest entry, The Bourne Legacy, we meet Mark Turso (Stacy Keach), a retired Navy admiral with CIA credentials, who brings back a retired Air Force colonel named Rick Byer (Edward Norton) to (in Byer’s phrase) burn the Treadstone program to the ground, leaving no evidence of its violent history. Bourne, and in the new picture an agent named Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), are aided in their fight against the inhumanity of the company by a series of women who find it easier than these ruthless males to do the right thing: Deputy CIA director Pam Landy (Joan Allen), who opposes Vosen’s escalating, Macbeth-like outbursts of violence (executed, of course, always by others); Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), whose job it used to be to deal with the psychological fallout in agents subjected to Treadstone training; and Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), who monitors their meds.

Shearing becomes involved with Cross in the course of Legacy, but only Identity has elements of romantic comedy sifted among the spy-thriller conventions. Marie is a young, hapless drifter with punkish, red-streaked hair to whom Bourne offers twenty thousand dollars to drive him from Zurich to Paris; when they fall in love the feelings she stirs in him deepen his need to find out who he is (and his despair as the darkness of his past reveals itself), while her association with him puts her in as much danger as he’s already in. The movie is The Manchurian Candidate crossed with The 39 Steps. The interaction of Damon and Potente, who are terrific together, supplies most of the movie’s humor. Liman isn’t really a high-tech action director, and the fact that scenes like a car chase through Paris are paced at a comparatively leisurely speed seems right for the genre mix; it takes you back to a less frantic, less flamboyant era of thrillers – the Charade era.

Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon
The substitution of Paul Greengrass for Liman in Supremacy and Ultimatum ups the ante. Greengrass (who also made Bloody Sunday and United 93) is a dazzling director with a distinctive approach to action sequences, a combination of cannily employed hand-held cameras and precise, blink-of-an-eye editing, and unlike the hacks who make most action films these days, he varies the close-ups with medium and long shots so the narrative never gets murky. His style is poetic-kinetic – the fragmented scenes that suggest the shards of Bourne’s still-blurry memory suggest the work of the great experimental filmmaker Ed Emschwiller -- and he knows how to drench a sequence in emotion. His model is obviously Brian De Palma, and twenty minutes into Supremacy we get a scene that’s clearly meant to pay homage to him. Bourne and Marie have managed to stay under the CIA radar for two years, but a Treadstone agent tracks them down in India and shoots at their jeep while they’re trying to get away, hitting Marie and sending the vehicle into the ocean. Jason tries to revive her underwater but he’s too late, and she floats away from him. The scene recalls the one in De Palma’s Blow Out where John Travolta dives into a lake to try to save two people in a submerged car, but it also harks back to all the classic sequences in De Palma pictures where the male protagonist is helpless to prevent harm from coming to a woman he cares about. (The floating motion specifically links up with a rare gender-reversal case in the De Palma canon: Tim Robbins’s death in space in the astronaut picture Mission to Mars, where his wife, played by Connie Nielsen, has to watch as he drops away into eternity.) Marie’s mermaid demise is suffused with melancholy and it hangs over the rest of the movie. 

John Travolta in Brian de Palma's Blow Out

The problem with Supremacy is that, entertaining as it is, only twice does it come close to that degree of feeling again. In one, Bourne tries to mine information out of a terrified Parsons. In the other (just before the end), Jason, having learned that on his first Treadstone mission he assassinated a liberal Russian politician and his wife (collateral damage) and rigged the scene to make it look like a murder-suicide, travels to Moscow to confront their daughter (Oksana Akinshina), now college-age, and tell her the truth about how her parents died. By contrast, Ultimatum, in which the storyline overlaps ingeniously with the last act of Supremacy, is pretty much pure excitement, and though it lacks the emotional resonance of the best parts of the previous picture, leaves you breathless and quite happy. I can’t think of anyone besides De Palma who could match the first set piece, in London’s Waterloo Station, where Bourne tries to protect a journalist (Paddy Considine) from Vosen’s thugs, or the one where Nicky, who has a major role in the third film, realizes an operative she’s handled now has orders to go after her, and she and Jason have to outrun him through the Tangier streets. (You can spot several influences in the surveillance scenes: not just Blow Out but also Coppola’s The Conversation and Altman’s Secret Honor and Tanner ’88.)

Greengrass didn’t direct The Bourne Legacy, but it’s fueled by the same combination of cynicism and righteous disgust as Supremacy and Ultimatum. That’s not surprising: the director is Tony Gilroy, who wrote Supremacy and co-wrote all of the others. And though he’s not Greengrass, he does a fine job. The movie is expertly calibrated and certainly gripping, and as in all three of its predecessors the acting is excellent, though Norton’s Rick Byer isn’t as interesting a villain as either Cox in Supremacy or Straithairn in Ultimatum. (Those earlier characters were written with more nuance.) The narrative takes place shortly after the end of Ultimatum, when Bourne convinces Pam Landy to bring to light the heinous nature of the Treadstone program. Vosen has done his best to undermine her, but since readily available footage linking Dr. Hirsch to the CIA (Byer finds it on YouTube!) confirms her story, at the beginning of Legacy Byer puts into effect a series of kill orders. 

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross
The post-Bourne generation of Treadstone agents is kept functioning at extraordinary levels of physical strength by a regimen of pills; effectively they are addicts monitored by Treadstone doctors. Byers tampers with their meds, killing off almost all of them. But Aaron Cross is still on a training exercise in the mountains. Presumably Byer has another plan to get rid of him, but because he’s such a resourceful specimen he shows up unexpectedly at the reconnoitering spot, a cabin in the woods, two days earlier than he’s expected. Byers sends an manned drone to blow up the cabin and eliminate another agent, also isolated from his handler, he thinks is its only inhabitant, and Cross survives both the explosion (by chance) and the drone's subsequent efforts to get at him (by skill). Byer’s plan to obliterate all traces of Treadstone also involves the brainwashing of one of the lab doctors (Zeljko Ivanek), who is programmed to shoot all of his co-workers before turning the gun on himself. Marta Shearing, through instinctual cunning and conviction, manages to outlive her assailant. Shearing is the one who has been supervising Cross’s meds; he shows up at her house just in time to save her from being shot by CIA operatives, who plan to rig her death to look like a suicide. Cross convinces Shearing to partner up with him for their mutual benefit: he can keep her safe and she can “viral him off” his meds. (He’s running out; unless she fixes him up, he’ll die.) So they fly to a lab in Manila that manufactures the cultures that go into the pills. By the time they get there, the CIA’s surveillance technology has caught up with them and sent agents to eliminate them. 

Rachel Weisz and Jeremy Renner
Legacy replays Bourne’s struggle against the dehumanizing of the CIA through Cross and Shearing. From the outset we can see that Cross’s human impulses rebel against his training: he tries to get the agent he encounters in the cabin to break down the barriers of communication between them, erected by the paranoia with which they’ve been carefully inculcated. (You might think of Clive Owen’s memorable death scene in Identity, in which he strives to make a little social contact with his killer, a fellow agent, before he expires.) In a flashback we see Aaron trying to do the same with Marta: get her to talk to him as one human being to another. And we sense that she might if she weren’t conscious that their conversation is being monitored. After he rescues her he confronts her, in a striking scene, with her role in his miserable, drug-dependent puppet existence. At first she argues that she had no idea what his Treadstone masters were using him for, but her defense isn’t convincing; when she protests that she was there “for the science,” her attempt to separate out the scientific content of her job from its implications begins to sound pathetic even to her, and she backs down. She’s not a stupid woman, or an insensitive one; it’s easy to imagine what sort of historical models must be occurring to her for her own passive participation in wrecking this man’s life. In his essay “Two Minds” Wendell Berry sets up a contrast between two kinds of mindsets:

The Rational Mind is objective, analytical, and empirical; it makes itself up only by considering facts; it pursues truth by experimentation; it is uncorrupted by preconception, received authority, religious belief, or feeling. Its ideal products are the proven fact, the accurate prediction, and the “informed decision” . . .

The Sympathetic Mind differs from the Rational Mind, not by being unreasonable, but by refusing to limit knowledge or reality to the scope of reason and factuality or experimentation, and by making reason the servant of things it considers precedent and higher.

The Rational Mind is motivated by the fear of being misled, of being wrong. Its purpose is to exclude everything that cannot empirically or experimentally be proven to be a fact.

The Sympathetic Mind is motivated by fear of error of a very different king: the error of carelessness, of being unloving. Its purpose is to be considerate of whatever is present, to leave nothing out.

The Rational Mind is exclusive; the Sympathetic Mind, however failingly, wishes to be inclusive.

The movie, you might say, is about the difference between these two minds. Treadstone is an outgrowth of the Rational Mind, but Cross and Shearing, like Bourne and Nicky Parsons before them, throw a monkey wrench into the works by operating according to the dictates of the Sympathetic Mind.

Jeremy Renner and Ed Norton
Renner is the perfect actor for an action picture with ambitions to be more: he has delicate sensitivities that he conveys through the most economic means. In another flashback, we hear Byer trying to buck up Cross, who is upset over human casualties in a mission, by explaining that men like them are American society’s “sin eaters . . . morally indefensible and absolutely necessary.” (There’s a Rational Mind rationale for you.) Cross doesn’t argue, but you see the grief in his eyes that Byer’s pep talk can’t wipe away. Weisz shows you how coming close to death – twice – ends up saving Marta’s soul. Her performance is almost as physically alert as Renner’s. On the run she demonstrates once again how sharply tuned her survival instincts are: leaving Aaron alone to recuperate in Manila while she goes out for medicine, she spots cops in the streets and senses that the CIA has sent them. She figures out how to slip through their net and warn him; she moves fast, with a combination of intelligence and precision.

The last section of the movie is a long chase scene introducing a new plot element that – though it’s probably a set-up for the next sequel – feels excessive: the agent Byer dispatches to murder Cross and Shearing is a result of the latest, top top secret, assassin training program, and he’s such an inhuman killing machine that he seems to have stepped out of The Terminator. The chase is fun, but the movie would be better without it; the point’s been made. But The Bourne Legacy is a worthy successor to the trilogy built around Jason Bourne. The idea at the heart of it – of all four Bourne pictures – owes a clear debt to John Le CarrĂ©’s Cold War thrillers, the first explorations of espionage that suggested that it might have moral problems. The Bourne movies have taken Le CarrĂ© into the twenty-first century and Americanized him, and the modification plays like gangbusters.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and The Boston Phoenix and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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