Friday, August 19, 2016

Still Bourne: Paul Greengrass' Jason Bourne

Matt Damon in Jason Bourne.

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment of the espionage franchise and the third in which Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass have teamed up (the fourth, a spin-off, saw Jeremy Renner in the lead). It's been an exhilarating partnership so far, producing the most taut chase scenes, desperate hand-to-hand struggles, and precision minimalist acting from an ever-expanding cast of characters. I'm happy to report that the latest film retains these features. Greengrass' action direction is uncanny, with several bravura sequences that will leave you slack-jawed. In one, Bourne races through the streets of Athens on a motorcycle in the middle of a full-scale popular uprising, replete with Molotov cocktails, tear gas, fire hoses, and pitched battles between rioters and armored police. It is a staggering, visceral piece of direction. Your sensory apparatus can hardly register the kinetic movement. The only thing I've ever seen that surpasses it is the final minutes of Alfonso Cuaron's Children of Men and perhaps Joe Wright’s Dunkirk sequence in Atonement. Damon continues his disciplined approach to the role; Tommy Lee Jones effortlessly steps into the shoes of the villain, nefarious CIA chief Robert Dewey; and Alicia Vikander gets the acting style of the franchise just right in the role of Heather Lee, Dewey’s protege.

But despite this craftsmanship and professionalism, Jason Bourne lacks the human conflict that lay at the core of the previous Damon films, a struggle that connected all of the movies’ elements into a tightly congealed ball. If you recall, the first movies trace the story of how Bourne--suffering from amnesia--comes to remember his past life as a CIA assassin even as he evades the Agency’s desperate attempts to eliminate him. His identity crisis was a moral crisis--he wanted to know the truth of his life so as to atone for the murders he committed. The problem was, he couldn’t escape being an assassin--he kept being forced to use his deadly abilities on the various black ops agents that came after him. Despite his desire to lead a quiet life, he had to keep killing, for the those agents would never have arisen if it weren’t for Bourne himself. He was the prototype, the first experiment in Dick Cheney’s 'dark side' operations. And so killing those agents and exposing their superiors was the only way to undo his painful legacy. That it fit in with his identity quest is what made the movies deeply compelling. This emotional weight lent a further urgency and excitement to the action sequences: the stakes were high.

In the new film, the arc of that storyline has finished--Jason knows that he volunteered to become an assassin and, with the help of Joan Allen’s character, he exposed the black ops program the CIA started with him. Greengrass and company try to revive the story by connecting it to the Edward Snowden saga: Dewey has struck a partnership with company named Deep Dream (a fictional Google or Facebook) and its CEO, Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed). Dewey wants access to the data from Deep Dream’s users so as to cast a vast blanket of surveillance on the world. Meanwhile, he sends an assassin after Bourne who was captured and tortured in Syria after Bourne exposed the Agency’s previous black ops programs, Treadstone and Black Briar. This Asset (Vincent Cassel) seeks vengeance on Bourne, who turns up in Greece making a living as a bare-knuckle brawler. His old love interest, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), draws him out of hiding when she hacks the CIA and download documents that hold two surprises: first, that Bourne’s father was involved with the formation of the black ops program. Second, unbeknownst to Bourne, that with the right psychological pressure, Jason could come back into the fold of the Agency and kill for them once more. His memory jogged once again, Bourne dashes across Europe to discover the truth about his father.

The problem with this setup is that lacks the moral and personal stakes of the previous films. Bourne directly helped create the black ops program--so it was imperative for him to stop it. But he’s had nothing to do with Dewey’s surveillance system, and thus there’s not as much of an investment on our part as an audience to see him take it down. It artificially connects Bourne to current affairs. Greengrass is one of the few directors who has the ambition to make movies about what’s going on in the real world, including the mediocre Green Zone and the superlative United 93. Usually he pulls it off, but here it feels tenuous. It’s as if he’s using Bourne as an inconsequential excuse to make a movie about Snowden and Syria. Sometimes it even feels contrived: would a CIA officer really plan to assassinate the CEO of a major company while he’s onstage before hundreds of people?

Alicia Vikander as Heather Lee in Jason Bourne.

The moral code of the movie also shifts away from its predecessors. Up until now, Bourne’s always been the reluctant killer. It’s what made Damon’s performance so powerful: the revulsion in his eyes after he dispatched his attackers. And those attackers were always anonymous, mindless drones who unquestioningly obeyed the orders of their handlers--the very creatures that Bourne was made to be and gave rise to. So he had to kill them, even as he wanted to renounce his identity. Killing them was the very means by which to renounce that identity, for by killing them, he could finally end the madness he started. Yet even then, he tried to avoid it if at all possible. In The Bourne Ultimatum, he spares the life of the asset who’s hounded him the entire movie. Later, when the man has a chance to eliminate Bourne, he asks why he didn’t take the shot when he had the chance. “Look at what they make you give,” Bourne calmly replies. His opponent lowers his weapon, his conscience waking up again.

It’s hard to find that conscience in Jason Bourne, in which both the title character and Vincent Cassel’s character descend into vengeance. Jason doesn’t have to kill this man, but he find a personal vendetta for doing so, just as the Asset has personal beef with Bourne for blowing his cover. But crude vengeance has never seemed Bourne’s style. It was his attraction-repulsion relationship with violence that always compelled us, his need to employ it even as he hated doing so. There’s no such moral struggle here, and it makes the character differ from his previous incarnations in a significant way. There’s also no mystery at work here, no dark secret propelling Bourne onward. His final reckoning with Dewey is thus impersonal, while his showdown with the Asset is all too personal.

The movie could have made up for these deficiencies through a fuller script, but Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, who wrote it, leave things rather thin. They don’t explore Bourne’s past relationship with Parsons, of which the third film gave us only a tantalizing glimpse. Nor do they really delve into the idea of Heather Lee turning Bourne back into working for the CIA, a potentially fascinating possibility. Allen always provided a smart foil to the crusty old chiefs who wanted Bourne dead, and her ambiguous relationship with Jason--first hunting him, then aiding him--helped drive the intrigue forward. But Greengrass doesn’t take this approach with Lee; her changes in allegiance come off as contrived and self-serving. The lightness of the material thus makes the action sequences feel heavier than usual. You can see Greengrass trying to outdo himself, which, given the bar he set in his previous two Bourne movies, is quite the challenge. His decisions--like having a SWAT tank explode through a dozen cars on the highway--are at once mind boggling and too much. It starts to veer into the crude territory of The Fast and the Furious. The Bourne franchise has always distinguished itself by staying a cut above, smarter and sleeker than all other thrillers. In this film, Jason's hand-to-hand duel with his nemesis pales in comparison to previous encounters.

That’s not to say Jason Bourne fails its sister films. You’re still not going to find action espionage movies of this quality and caliber anywhere else (save the occasional Skyfall). Greengrass retains his status as the king of docudrama realism and a virtuoso at narrative directing and editing. His attempt to speak to ongoing issues of national security and government power is well placed, and the movie delivers no shortage of cinematic coups. It’s thoroughly worth your time and money, leaving the characters in decent condition. But if the filmmakers want to keep the franchise in that state, they’re going to have to find a way to reconnect it to what always made Jason Bourne the most complicated spy on screen.

– Nick Coccoma is a film, theatre, and culture critic. He blogs regularly at The Similitude and contributes to Full-Stop Magazine. His articles and postings on movies, religion, and drama have been featured on Andrew Sullivan’s The DishThe Rumpus3 Quarks Daily, and Catholic How. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he studied theatre, philosophy, and theology at the College of the Holy Cross and Boston College. He lives in Boston, where he's worked as an actor, teacher, and chaplain. 

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