The Bourne Allegory: Matt Damon as the American Public August 21, 2007Posted by clydefro in : Modern Films, 2000s , trackback
Note: This discussion will contain spoilers for the films featuring Matt Damon as amnesiac CIA assassin Jason Bourne, specifically the most recent installment The Bourne Ultimatum.
With the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, it appears that the final chapter in the movie life of Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has been written. Outstanding box office grosses may prove otherwise, but the protagonist’s quest at least feels complete by the end of Paul Greengrass’s action thriller. The three movies, including The Bourne Identity and its follow-up The Bourne Supremacy, have had an enormous impact on the action genre (witness Casino Royale), the revitalization of Matt Damon’s acting career, and the emergence of Greengrass as a director to pay attention to after he picked up where Doug Liman left off following the first film. They’re all supremely entertaining pictures, as good as any of their ilk this decade, but this last one opened my eyes to a fascinating political undercurrent that may breeze by or simply not interest the popcorn junkies.
The first film, directed by Liman and based on (but not entirely faithful to) the 1980 novel by Robert Ludlum, was released in June of 2002, less than a year after the September 11 terrorist attacks on U.S. soil. At this time, the American people and even the world community were wounded, confused, and angry. An uneasy confidence loomed within the United States. The lingering sense of shock provided constant reminders that we were vulnerable, but our history and perseverance were sources of great, prosperous hope. The persons responsible would pay for what they had done, this horrible, undeserved jolt to the American livelihood.
Similarly, in The Bourne Identity, the character of Jason Bourne, played with stoic efficiency by Matt Damon, is found in Mediterranean waters with two gunshot wounds and unable to remember anything about his past. This is an action hero easy to sympathize with, and, maybe, relate to for the American public. He’s been viciously attacked by persons unknown, but remains resilient and determined to get some answers. It becomes apparent that he’s been trained as a lethal warrior-soldier, fully equipped with the tools necessary to accomplish this new, personal mission. To draw a parallel with the American military, Bourne was no longer fighting someone else’s battle. Just as U.S. troops spent decades intervening in conflicts not their own, Damon’s character had followed orders to kill strangers without asking questions. With these more intimate attacks, the tables had abruptly turned.
By the end of the first film, Bourne has seemingly found peace by moving to a remote area with Marie, a woman who helped him and with whom he’s fallen in love, played by Franka Potente. His temporary happiness distracts Bourne from the bigger picture of his prior life as an assassin for the CIA much the same way the American public were briefly distracted by a “war” with Afghanistan. I’m not intending this as foreign policy debate, but it’s undeniable that whatever the United States did in Afghanistan failed to eliminate our greatest threats. Likewise, Bourne’s attempts at remaining safe, by lying low and ignoring his enemies, proved ineffective in The Bourne Supremacy when Marie is killed by men targeting Bourne.
It’s important to note that The Bourne Supremacy was released in July 2004, roughly 16 months after the United States invaded Iraq and in the midst of a tense presidential election campaign. This was not yet a wholly unpopular war and the American public, despite a significant political divide, retained a faded, yet optimistic hope that the war in Iraq wasn’t completely for naught. The events of September 11 were still very much in people’s minds (as evidenced by much of the campaign rhetoric) and many people believed deposing Saddam Hussein was a step in the right direction for stopping future terrorist attacks. However, the public was increasingly starting to lose patience with the ordeal in Iraq and the slow failure to find Osama bin Laden.
In comparison (and contrast), Bourne in the second entry is devastated and enraged by Marie’s death and begins to remember some of the assignments he had as an assassin. His determination is renewed after two years of peace, knowing the only way to make this end will be to find those responsible and do whatever must be done to stop them. Yet, he’s only so effective in this and barely scratches the surface of the bigger picture. Similar to the pronounced drip of information trickling out to the American public regarding the basis of the war in Iraq and who knew what when, Bourne has repeated flashbacks into his past that slowly give him a better idea of exactly what it was he did prior to his amnesia. In both instances, the revelations are not comforting and show cause for significant regret and governmental distrust.
By the end of The Bourne Supremacy, we’ve learned that our hero has done terrible things in the name of continued “freedom” and suffers guilt and frustration as a result. Parallels can easily be drawn here between what Bourne feels and the contrition experienced by many Americans over shameful incidents at military prison Abu Ghraib involving U.S. soldiers, and, in a broader sense, the utter disruption to the lives of the Iraqi people due to the American invasion. Though this is perhaps a little attenuated of a comparison and will obviously vary based on one’s own personal views, I think it’s still apt. Coincidental or not, Jason Bourne serves as an eerily accurate face of the American public regarding post-9/11 foreign policy, an idea cemented and fully realized in The Bourne Ultimatum.
The third film’s plot picks up where the previous one left off, as Bourne tries to figure out who trained him and for what purpose. His journey leads to London and, finally, back to New York, where he gets tangled up with maniacal CIA man David Straithairn and Joan Allen’s Pamela Landy, returning from the second film. Meanwhile, Bourne is being targeted by CIA-contracted assassins, men doing the same thing he once had done. Essentially, Bourne’s life is threatened by persons acting exactly as he had done prior to the amnesia, similar to how Americans’ safety has been at risk as a result of actions deemed terrorist when committed by our enemies, but acceptable when we’re the ones “protecting our freedoms.”
It’s near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum when everything coalesced for me and I realized Bourne was intended, as opposed to a more coincidental nature in the others, to be seen as a stand-in for the experiences of the American public. He visits Albert Finney’s character Dr. Hirsch at the training facility where everything started for the man then known as David Webb, where he swore his allegiance to the United States of America under the auspices that it was for the greater good. He was a soldier, a patriot willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for his country by completely transforming himself into a robot waiting for his next mission. Though he was told part of what would be required, Webb was an innocent by virtue of the naive belief that he wouldn’t be misused. Like the American people, his ultimate fault was in placing his complete trust in his nation’s government and not asking questions in the process.
For the populace at large, that trust was betrayed by years of covert tactics handpicking leaders to overthrow unfriendly foreign governments, many of whom unsurprisingly turned on the United States and became our enemies. Just as Bourne comes to realize that his experimental training had been used to assassinate those inconvenient to U.S. foreign policy, the people of the United States have discovered for themselves that they were tricked into supporting a false war using rationales from 9/11 to WMD’s to rosy portraits of freeing little Arab children. The debate over what’s necessary in foreign policy isn’t what matters here, it’s the idea that both Bourne and the America he represents in these films have been trained to accept lies and false mandates and both must deal with the consequences.
The epiphany-rendering scene near the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, when Damon’s increasingly weary character struggles with flashbacks to assassination assignments, reminded me very much of the myriad opportunities my country has had to viciously kill despot after despot. This painful legacy is in full focus here, regardless of the box office grosses and franchise popularity. I’m not complaining one iota. It’s an extremely brave move for the Bourne principals to insert such a subversive, politically charged point in a film destined for millions of Americans to fork over ten bucks worth of admission on any given August night. Jason Bourne expresses his guilt like his fellow Americans: silently and ineffectively. The Bourne character and the American public negligently turned a blind eye to repeated foreign policy improprieties and our punishment is to experience the aftermath. Twin amnesiacs doomed to the nightmares of our sins.
If the entire Bourne franchise is really about mistrust and betrayal at the hands of the presumed good guys, then what does the ending suggest when we’re made to believe justice is served and the malfeasance wasn’t widespread? It suggests a Hollywood movie, I think. That’s what happens in big-budget, studio-financed films. It always has. The fun is in looking between the lines for less obvious, but no less important, themes. I find it highly unlikely that director Paul Greengrass and the rest of the Bourne team didn’t intentionally position their film as a direct shot at the hearts and minds of American moviegoers. It’s subtle enough so that most people won’t leave the theater disturbed and angered at America’s foreign policy sins (which is good, I suppose, so as not to awaken the shiny happy public), but still manages to make its point loud and clear if you’re paying attention.
The poster adds mysterious fuel to the fire, placing Bourne right in the middle of the New York skyline once anchored in part by the World Trade Center towers. It’s an obvious reference to 9/11, but what exactly does it mean? I can only speculate like anyone else, but my interpretation is that Bourne symbolizes the innocence lost by the American public on that tragic day. We’re no longer able to carelessly follow our leaders’ foreign policy actions without realizing the possible long-term ramifications that could indeed be hazardous to our livelihoods. Granted that’s giving the designer a ton of credit possibly undeserved, but I like the idea that the poster would tie up the entire franchise so neatly, coincidence or not.