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.
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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.