Jason Bourne: More Than a Rerun, Because He’s Never Been More Relevant

Jason Bourne
Courtesy of Universal

On screen, the “Bourne” thrillers, from “The Bourne Identity” (2002) to the new “Jason Bourne,” have always been powered by a cool contradiction. A movie about a brainwashed human-robot ex-CIA assassin — or rather, a movie in which a brainwashed human-robot ex-CIA assassin is the hero — starts off, let’s not kid ourselves, as more of a right-wing fantasy than a liberal one. That’s why Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne, to fit the paradigm of liberal Hollywood, has to be an assassin who’s gone rogue. He’s not on the side of the sinister CIA honchos who want to assert their will in the world; he’s against them. He’s on our side. He’s up against those who destroyed his identity and turned him into a jujitsu sociopath to serve the U.S. agenda.

That’s why, on the movies’ own terms, he’s someone to root for. But, of course, in taking that life-as-target-practice homicidal mercilessness and turning it against his former bosses, Bourne, the programmed amnesiac assassin, embodies the very qualities of ruthless government control. That’s the contradiction that gives the Paul Greengrass films, especially, their slight amoral edge, and it’s one of the keys to their excitement. (It’s not just about the rapid-fire cut/cut/cut propulsion.) It’s that paradox that makes them cool.

Which brings us to “Jason Bourne.” The movie name-checks Edward Snowden a couple of times, and that tends to be a sign that a thriller is straining for topicality — as if pasting a reference like that onto a high-powered action movie were an automatic guarantee of relevance. But this is the rare instance where the relevance is earned. Not because “Jason Bourne” is “about” the Snowden case. But because the very thing that the words “Edward Snowden” have come to symbolize — the issue of government surveillance, of how much it is justified (or not), of how secret it should be (or not), of whether patriotism now means protecting government secrecy or violating it — quivers through every frame of “Jason Bourne.” You might assume that the movie, being a product of liberal Hollywood (and it is), would have a straightforward take on the subject. You might assume that it would be pro-Snowden: in favor of divulging secrets, and against the growth of the American surveillance state. And you would not be wrong.

Yet good movies work in mysterious and subversive ways. Just as the “Bourne” films have always invited us to get in touch with our inner assassin, there’s an electrifying contradiction that snakes its way through “Jason Bourne.” To wit: Is the movie against surveillance, or is it half in awe of surveillance? I’d argue that the answer is both. What’s more, that answer mirrors how even some liberals may feel, deep down, about the revelations that the Snowden leaks placed on the map. For even if you think that we’re heading toward a world of too much secrecy and private-information-gathering (and for the record, that’s the view I overwhelmingly side with), the answer to that, in a digitally merged and invasive sci-fi super-world (i.e., our planet today), surely can’t be: Eliminate all surveillance! It wouldn’t be possible, it wouldn’t work, and even if we could somehow do it, other countries and forces would, of course, still be surveilling us. So even if you’re a card-carrying liberal on the subject of the NSA, few of us, perhaps, could simply be said to be “anti-surveillance.”

That’s the ambivalence that makes “Jason Bourne” such a heady, exciting, and up-to-the-minute movie. More, perhaps, than any previous “Bourne” installment, it’s a thriller that invites us to watch the professional watchers as they survey the rogue watchers who are watching them.

What’s evolved? The even more complete way that Greengrass now portrays the surveillance system at work, with a seamless and omnipresent circuit of satellites linked to cameras linked to computers linked to eyeballs. In “Jason Bourne,” that system has become the air we breathe — a fully operational octopus state with micro-tentacles of infinite reach. Bourne has got a relentless assassin (Vincent Cassel, wonderfully single-minded about killing) on his tail, and he’s always on the run, but it’s not like he can hide; as often as not, and more than ever before, there’s a CIA camera eye right on him.

In “Jason Bourne,” we’re immersed, in almost every scene, in a globe that’s been wired, and that affects the audience kinesthetically. For one thing, it’s thrilling to behold: The surveillance is so routinely there it collapses our sense of concrete space. That’s why we rarely see people in the movie traveling; they’re already everywhere at once. (If you think back to “The Bourne Identity” 14 years ago, that movie was so physical it now seems like a thriller set in the land of horse and buggy.) All of this provokes, in us, a moral criss-cross. Surveying the surveillance, our ethical compass says “No, no, no” but our childlike eyes say “Yes, yes, yes.” The seduction of seeing and hearing beyond walls carries an existential enticement that pushes the film’s action forward. That’s what makes the new character, Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee, so intriguing. At first, we suspect that she’s your basic sympathetic ingénue cyber-desk jockey — an updated equivalent of the Julia Stiles character. Actually, though, she may be getting ready to take over. For a while, she seems open to Bourne, but what’s tensely compelling about Vikander’s performance is the calibrated consciousness with which Heather exists inside the new world of surveillance. It’s in her (ice) blood.

There’s one more place where “Jason Bourne” cuts against the grain of liberal cinema (which may be why a number of liberal critics haven’t liked it). The character of Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), the superstar CEO of a social-media network called Deep Dream, is presented as a new-tech guru. He gets up in front of a crowd with that slow-talking, non-blinking Tony Robbins-seminar-gone-brave-new-world omnipotence that turned Steve Jobs’ product announcements into cult events, and he’s portrayed as an engaging composite icon of hipster charisma. He’s the kind of generational leader the media tends to fawn over. Except that in this case, his company was secretly funded by the CIA, so that they could have a leg up on abolishing privacy through social media. It’s a biting metaphor: The Company meets the (millennial) corporation, a match — the movie says — made in Orwellian heaven. What the character of Kalloor really signifies is the way that we have all, through the rise of social media, acquiesced in the abolition of privacy that’s the essence of the Snowden critique. The movie is saying: Maybe the government couldn’t be doing it, at least not this efficiently, if the gurus (and even the citizens) hadn’t gotten there first.

“Jason Bourne” wears its themes lightly, and that’s the essence of its appeal. It’s a propulsive Hollywood thriller, not a seminar. Yet there are certain movies that channel what’s going on in a way that’s deeper then preaching. The liberal message on the Edward Snowden era comes down to: Less surveillance…good! That’s the message of “Jason Bourne” as well. But because it’s not a message movie, it can afford, through the contours of its glidingly hypnotic eye-in-the-sky style, to do more than make a statement. It can question surveillance and take the liberal view of it, but it can also touch the hidden pulse of a society that may be more ambivalent about these things than we’d care to admit, since there’s a part of every one of us that, deep down, really does like to watch.

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  1. tsmekens says:

    Owen, thank you for review of this film. I’m a media critic and journalist who just recently watch the latest Bourne movie. What fascinated me was the plot between CIA director and social media founder. Was this a play on Facebook?

    Only techies would catch the comments about developing the software with a “back door for the CIA”. Also, I loved the interplay between characters about what the term, “patriot” means.

    Also, since I’m late to watch the film, the depth of the surveillance state added perspective to the “hacks supposedly committed by Russian actors. Don’t you think the NSA/CIA would know with extreme accuracy who breached the computers at Democratic National Headquarters?

    The truth is those weren’t hacks. They were insiders who leaked the emails to Wikileaks. Not hacks.

    Anyway, thanks again for the great review.

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  3. >>>>>>>>>>>>> says:

    Bourne never fights muslim terrorists, but always some obtuse CIA plot that makes no sense. He’s never been more irrelevant.

    • Sal U. Lloyd says:

      Oh, wait! You have a list like EXECUTIVE DECISION and TRUE LIES either. Bourne NEVER fights gun-toting right wing wackos!

  4. AllWiledUp says:

    Owen, you’re losing me man. “Edward Snowden” these days doesn’t stand for government surveillance as much as the suspicion that the KGB is running WikiLeaks and he’s just their Trojan horse.

    Jason Bourne is also a crappy movie, derivative, poorly shot, with a nonsensical screenplay and mediocre acting. Give me a break.

  5. Movies like this bring out the voyeur in us all.

  6. tdcast@email.com says:

    bourne is not on our side, he’s only really out for himself.

    if the boys at langely were not so stupid then he would just disappear for good.

    • Steve Barr says:

      The best Matt Damon spy movie is not any of the Bourne films . It’s The Good Shepherd Robert DeNiro’s great film about the birth of the C.I.A.- by the way I find it ironic that DeNiro made two films that are better than what Scorsese has put on the screen. The Bronx Tale is what Goodfellas should have been and The Good Shepherd is what The Departed should have been.

  7. tdcast@email.com says:

    this maybe a 21st century spy movie but its view of the c I a is straight out of the ‘parallex view’ and ‘3 days of the condor’.

    and last year’s clutch of spy movies shows that audiences want a little style and fun from their on screen agents.

    and james bond will return……

  8. Harry Wild says:

    The CIA should just let Jason retire and move on! That should be the final Bourne movie! The final scene should Jason getting a Presidential pardon for all the colleagues that he has taken out – must be like half of the CIA station chiefs and a quarter of all their trained assassins. Jason Bourne is bad business for the CIA and the KGB too! Where is Jimmy Carter when you need him?

  9. Lorenza says:

    Very good information. Lucky me I came across yoyr blog by chance
    (stumbleupon). I have bookmarked it for later!

  10. John says:

    “he’s always on the run” – that one phrase, sums up the entire Bourne series.

  11. twoitazek says:

    Liberals ARE HYPOCRITES! Ya can’t have it both ways. By that I mean privacy and “free” health care, education, childcare……ect.
    I’mean a card carrying conservative who believes in the bill of rights and U.S. Constitution. Our government is and has been totally out of control for some time now, and surrendering freedom for safety or a sense of economic security only makes us prisoners. If things like single payer healthcare and free college, both controlled by the government are implemented, it’ll be easier to watch us than this movie shows. This movie is a merger of left and right wing ideology.

  12. IT--II--IT says:

    Hollywood and entertainment were –ALWAYS— 100% INTEL RUN

    By 1970, Hollywood was –literally— of a piece with the globalist mafia CIA

    That was the eve of the ‘NICK’s ON’ – –MAO handover TREASON op

    KEEP falling for the ongoing MIS–direction

    WORKS like a CHARM

    In fact, it was and –IS— a charm !

    Brought to us by the ‘good’ psychopaths at TAVISTOCK mind control

    The EYE –CON – –job’ – –charm——— – – –

  13. R.J says:

    Matt Damon is for gun control but yet his face is plastered across Los Angeles billboards with a cool looking gun pointing at us! If he really wanted to help with the gun situation in America he should stop making films glorifying guns.

    • Vader says:

      Matt Damon is a hypocrite (and worse) for saying we should all have our guns taken away then playing Jason Bourne. Matt: “I’m against guns. Producer: Hey Matt, Want to make millions killing people with guns in a move? Yeah sure.”

  14. Nocookies says:

    The most astute observations I’ve yet read about this movie.

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