Precious Bodily Fluids

The Bourne Ultimatum

(Forgive the unfortunate photo-formatting.) While taking a “break” the other day from the sorts of films that surround this entry, I thrust myself into the catharsis that is The Bourne Ultimatum only to see and appreciate things that may as well be noted here. When the film was released, there was a rather immediate outcry from conservative commentators such as Bill O’Reilly alleging that the film was anti-patriotic/anti-American/badbadbad. (Note how those things are axiomatically synonymous.) Paul Greengrass’ film surely makes a comment/critique on the rumors and cataloged realities of recent US practices. And that’s an interesting aspect of the movie. But there are other interesting aspects, too.

First, there are the continuities with the first film in the trilogy, The Bourne Identity. Bourne makes a comment at one point (though not terribly profound): “This is where it started for me. This is where it ends.” In the same way, Ultimatum serves as a homecoming for the character, and the film marks the occasion with a chiastic conclusion referring to Identity. Certain moments call immediately to mind the first film. Nicky cuts her hair in front of the mirror just as Marie did earlier. Jason and Nicky sit at a small café table next to a window just like the truck stop in Identity where he and Marie did the same. In the first film, Jason and Marie look around in his Paris apartment, of which he has no memory, when one of the Treadstone agents swings Tarzan-style through a window. Jason and the agent then fight hand-to-hand (and with other interesting articles) until the agent’s death. In Ultimatum, the agent Desch is in an apartment in Tangier playing cat-and-mouse with Nicky when Bourne leaps off of another apartment balcony and through the window of the one with Desch and Nicky. (Interestingly, the shots are from Bourne’s POV each time; in Identity, we’re inside the apartment while in Ultimatum we’re coming through the window with Bourne.) Again, the two men fight until Bourne wins out. And in both films, the women briefly attempt to help Bourne, but their efforts are basically futile. Then there is the film’s ending, which perfectly corresponds to one of the first shots of Identity: the underwater shot silhouetting Bourne’s unconscious body against the moonlight. The perfection of Ultimatum‘s ending (i.e., body movement after the suspenseful lull) is the main reason why Greengrass, Damon, & Co. shouldn’t do a fourth film.

Back to the women. Let’s keep this simple: there is no bad woman in the Bourne trilogy. At least, I don’t think so. Who are the women? Marie, Nicky, and Pam. These movies have a hardcore case of the Oedipus syndrome. The men in charge (characters played by Chris Cooper, Brian Cox, Albert Finney, and David Strathairn) are pretty much always pure evil and want to off Bourne. Bourne has an opportunity to kill each one of them but doesn’t, twice rationalizing why he doesn’t kill them. In Supremacy, Bourne tells Abbot (Cox) that the only reason he doesn’t kill him is that Marie wouldn’t want him to. In Ultimatum, he tells the big dog (Albert Finney) that he won’t shoot him because he doesn’t deserve the plaque they’d give him at Langley. Point being, Bourne has a lot of negative energy directed toward these men. Pam, the one woman who is in an authority position, assumes a motherly role for Bourne. Once she learns a little about him, her pursuit of him becomes motivated by a protective instinct. A (possibly-[co]incidental) cherry-on-top occurs when Pam, in all her maternal glory, bestows upon Jason his original (and heretofore forgotten) name: David Webb. But aside from that, one can look even at the first instance when Bourne hears Pam’s voice (as he monitors a phone call in Supremacy). He physical reaction immediately implies that with a female agent near the top, the game may have changed for him. As for Marie and Nicky, they’re more straightforward; Marie especially. In Ultimatum, Nicky is finally given the opportunity to do what we perceive she’s been willing to do all along: leave it all in order to help Bourne. On top of her other allusions to Marie, Nicky implies to Jason that they had a history together prior to Treadstone, a history which he still cannot recall. Among the three women in the Bourne films, then, Jason has two lovers and a mother.

As for the anti-American themes, obviously they’re there, and obviously they’re motivated by both realities and paranoias. The entire trilogy revolves around a US agent who’s forced to go rogue because his own government isn’t sympathetic with a moral dilemma in one of their own. They want him to kill, he doesn’t want to kill. In Identity, Bourne arrives at the US embassy, believing to have escaped some Swiss police, only to find out that he is more endangered on US soil than Swiss. Ultimatum has Bourne in the US more than the other films do. Once he arrives at the heart of his training in NYC, his fatherland represents everything he’s been forced to hate for the last three years and in this way extends the Oedipus syndrome to a national level. The flashback to his training (being forced to execute an anonymous prisoner) recalls certain scandals in the Middle East even more than it recalls Batman Begins. It’s all quite shameless, but probably the biggest problem with it is Bourne’s blame resting on anyone other than himself. He may have been programmed to kill, but he put himself out there, committed to the program, executed the prisoner (and plenty more diplomats and international figures), and agreed to the name change. Sure, his government let him down. But is one no longer responsible for the crimes s/he commits simply by virtue of amnesia and an accompanying resurrection of the conscience?

This entry was published on September 12, 2008 at 8:00 pm. It’s filed under 2000s Cinema and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

5 thoughts on “The Bourne Ultimatum

  1. “War changes men’s natures. The barbarities of war are seldom committed by abnormal men, but by normal men under abnormal circumstances. They live every day with fear and anger and blood and death, and when rules are departed from by one side, they will be departed from by the other. Soldiers at war are not to be judged by civilian rules. Their actions, viewed calmly afterward, often seem un-Christian and brutal, but if all men who committed barbarous acts in war were court-martialed, courts-martial would be in permanent session. We ourselves are not fit to judge such men.” – Breaker Morant (1980)

    I just read this tonight in an essay on Breaker Morant and I thought it seemed apropos. I’m conflicted about it, quite honestly.

  2. This is good, and an indispensable admission. I read this book in college (, which makes a similar case for “Nazi” soldiers in WWII. However, in the interests of real democracy (or even socialism, for that matter), people ought to be held accountable for their actions. Without a doubt, W is to be blamed for this war in a way that the common soldier should not be. And of course, the common soldier is different from the character of Jason Bourne (who was told to assassinate if he wanted to join “the program”). In a world of hell, the line separating angels from demons is extremely blurry if not invisible. Most of us can’t tell on which side of the line we ourselves fall. But when we’re given the clarity to see, we should be quick to blame ourselves when we have failed.

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  5. Having not seen the previous two in the trilogy of Bourne movies, I was a little reluctant to watch The Bourne Ultimatum.

    However it was a very thrilling experience and I didn’t have the problem of not understanding what was happening due to not seeing the first two films. Each part of the story was easy to understand and I fell in love with The Bourne Ultimatum before it had reached the interval! I don’t think I have ever watched such an exquisitely made, and gripping film, especially an action film. Since I usually shy away from action and thriller type movies, this was such great news to me. Ultimatum is one of the most enthralling films, it grabs your attention from the first second till the last minute before the credits roll.

    Matt Damon was simply fantastic as his role as Jason Bourne. I’ve heard a lot about his great performances in the Bourne 1+2, and now, this fabulous actor has one more to add to his list. I look forward to seeing more of his movies in the future.

    The stunts were handled with style – each one was done brilliantly and I was just shocked by the impressiveness of this movie. Well done.

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