The Theory of Chaos

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

From the Archive - MOVIE REVIEW - The Bourne Ultimatum

Originally published 8/12/07
Full review behind the jump

The Bourne Ultimatum

: Paul Greengrass
: Screen Story by Tony Gilroy, Screenplay by Tony Gilroy and Scott Z. Burns and George Nolfi, based on the novel by Robert Ludlum
: Patrick Crowley, Frank Marshall, Paul L. Sandberg
: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Albert Finney, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Edgar Ramirez

Maybe I’m not the only one that remembers this – in those awful, numbing, fearful days after September 11, 2001, a strange suggestion was making its way through our geopolitical discourse.
This happened, it went, because we hold back. These terrorist groups require people to commit murder as an initiation – if we had just given our undercover operatives the right to kill in those circumstances, we could have prevented this tragedy.

It was a ludicrous contention, and as the hard facts emerged it became clear that we had all the information we needed, the people in charge just weren’t organized or vigilant enough about this threat to see what the information meant and act on it. But ever since, our society seems gripped in variations on the same desperate self-examination; whether our freedoms make us weak, and whether what we need in order to be safe are to unquestioningly trust not evidence, but the judgment of a few wise men “brave” enough to be ruthless to whomever they deem an enemy.

I say all this because in
The Bourne Ultimatum, there is no real enemy beyond our own dangerous flirtation with power. It shows that when you can take the power of life or death over someone just by speaking the phrase “We have an imminent threat!”, that power corrupts absolutely, and according to human nature the inevitable result is using that power to preserve power, civilians snatched from the street on a whiff of suspicion, and assassinations mistakenly targeting the innocent. Watch what happens to a newspaper reporter (Paddy Considine) whose crime is daring to be good at his job. Sometimes entertainment is the Trojan Horse for some urgent anti-establishment sentiments, and director Paul Greengrass, who not only directed the ripping second episode in the Bourne franchise – The Bourne Supremacy – but the overpowering September 11th memorial docudrama United 93, has shaped this perpetual motion thrill machine so it has a sneaky contemporary moral: competence will always trump ruthlessness. It’s what keeps Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) alive.

Bourne, you’ll remember, was the CIA-groomed assassin who choked on a mission, fell into the ocean, and ended up with amnesia. Since then, his life essentially a blank slate he wants to re-draw with goodness, he has been swiftly circling the globe, using his company-honed intel training and deadly reflexes to learn who turned him into this killing machine, and why they won’t leave him alone. In this chapter he finally returns to American soil and to the place that “created” him, but not after causing no small amount of mayhem in Europe and Northern Africa.

Greengrass, I think, has the greatest sense of geography of any filmmaker working right now. I say that not in the traditional map-reading sense, but in the way that he can cinematically occupy a three-dimensional space so we know where all the characters are in relation to one another even at the height of an action sequence. The visual grammar of The Bourne Ultimatum is the equivalent of slam poetry, percussive, virtuoso and utterly without a net. Establishing shots are in short supply. Messy handheld camera moves envelop us in crowded terminals and bustling streets, has us trying to peer around corners to follow our leads as the chase continues.

Yet we’re never really lost. One especially accomplished sequence set in Tangier has a chase proceed on street-level, rooftops, and the apartment buildings between them simultaneously; with the principals dashing up and down staircases and leaping through windows across alleys trying to get to each others’ levels with impeccable momentum. You might remember the famed St. Paddy’s Day Parade sequence in The Fugitive, an essentially improvised chase filmed with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones running into the middle of a real-life event. This movie creates the sensation of that kind of chaos in every scene.

In addition, it carries on a franchise trademark of supplying a supremely-capable supporting cast to play off the wary conviction Matt Damon is so good at. David Strathairn plays Noah Vosen, the latest intelligence-community bureaucrat preaching the need to do terrible things to protect America, and pulling all the levers at his disposal trying to stop Bourne from, well, letting America know what is being done in the name of protecting them. Strathairn plays Vosen not as a snarling paranoid, but a tetchy egotist with way too much authority; I like the studiedly boring way he orders his “heart-healthy omelet” at breakfast. His dry corruption, the way he has quietly determined himself so necessary to our safety that an attack on him is an attack on “America”, to be responded to with every weapon and no restraint, is a source of mounting horror to Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the CIA executive who had a brush with Bourne in the prior film which has her questioning the morality of her work.

What the antagonists of these movies eventually fear every time is not Bourne himself but what he represents – the desire to shine a light on our secrets, to question the actions people are taking in our name and demand proof that those actions are justified and in our interest. He represents self-examination, which carries with it the threat of discovering we haven’t always done the right thing. At one point Bourne freezes a would-be assassin (Edgar Ramirez) just by asking “Do you even know why you’re supposed to kill me?” It’s such an obvious question, which is why it’s so dangerous to the Noah Vosens of the world, who don’t want us asking any questions.

If you look at what Paul Greengrass has physically assembled for The Bourne Ultimatum you have more than enough to recommend. It provides the envelope-pushing action of a James Bond picture with the layers-within-layers cynicism characteristic of Bourne creator Robert Ludlum. It is, simply by those criteria, cracking good entertainment. But when you let the movie soak in, have what Hitchcock called your “icebox moment”, when you’re home, getting something from the fridge, and thinking idly about what you’ve just seen, you’ll be absorbing that this summer blockbuster is saying the radically sensible things we’ve been needing to say for some time now. I think, if I had to chose between James Bond, Jason Bourne, and Jack Bauer to protect me, I’d take Bourne.


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