I hope this establishes the fact that nobody can out-rant me. I love to rant. I wrote this up in an hour, I should really invest in thinking before writing… but then I’d forget what I was going to say.
DO NOT READ THIS IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE FILM. IT’S SPOILER-TASTIC.
Rarely does a film arouse so much passion in me, not only on a purely visceral level, but as an intellectually and political minded individual. I’d rank, Bourne on the same level as films like High Noon and The Manchurian Candidate that dared to challenge government policy and ideals through the cinematic medium, while still maintaining their integrity as entertainment, as well as art. I would go so far as saying the Bourne Ultimatum, is the most important American film of the decade. I think most importantly, the film doesn’t attack of vilify the target of it’s analysis and criticism. While the CIA, and the American Government are exaggerated and are Bourne’s enemy, there is as much help to him from the organization, as there is adversity. The attack is more on policy, and indoctrination than government bodies. Secrets that are being held from the American people, and the consequences as a result of them. The film rises to ask how far can we go to “save American lives”? Will it result in the loss of the American identity, and the loss of democracy?
Bourne himself is a symbol of the idea and the ever present doubt people may have in the government system. This plays into the fact that he is not only discredited and vilified as a threat to national security, but also the reason why he himself is invincible. An idea or a movement that is strong, and important is not easy to destroy, in fact it’s near impossible. He is a collective entity, much like the French Resistance, you may kill countless individuals but you cannot kill the quest for truth and justice. Bourne represents the seeking of truths and answers, not only about himself but the reasons behind what has been done to him. He may be just one man, but he represents millions. There is an ever present searching for national, and personal identity. Truths, and answers to why we are who we are, and how we are being shaped by the forces around us. Bourne is the American soldier who dares to ask why he has to kill. He has regained his identity, and in doing that he also realises the importance of a society, and every person in it. It takes self-awareness first to truly begin to see the world around you as it truly is. Bourne’s quest and motives begin with himself, only to end by implicating the entire nation. The experimental treatment he goes through is akin to the “brainwashing” of corporations, putting materialism and capitalism as defining of individual worth, turning a world into a self-centered, unquestioning mob. Our identity is lost when our possessions and wealth begin to define us. We no longer question, only conforming. Some try to escape the fold, or question it and are only labelled with terms like anti-American or to borrow a classic term, communist.
Individuals in the CIA, and higher up work to vilify Bourne for his radicalism, in simply wanting to know who he is; wanting to know the truth. Coming back to the anti-American stand point, a term that is constantly used as criticism against those who try to hold their government and their decisions accountable, the parallels to the current administrative state are overwhelming. The government shouldn’t keep secrets from the people, the people should be the ones holding the power. The film perhaps goes to extremes in suggesting that the CIA has an assassination bureau that doesn’t have to answer to the government, but one wonders how far from the truth this may be. The inner workings of these organizations are becoming more muddled and difficult to ascertain as they gain more power, all in the name of National Security and “saving American lives” (a line that is repeated again and again in the film). From our stand point, we know that Bourne ISN’T a threat to anyone but the people who are trying to suppress and hide the truth. They transformed him into what he is, and then condemn him for his humanity. Another reminder that soldiers (not only in the States, Canada among others are just as guilty) work to create soldiers who are without identity, emotion, and who do not question their orders, but when they are no longer needed do nothing to “rehabilitate” them. No therapy, no sympathy, and in some cases outright ignoring or even demonizing them. This goes back to World War One, and perhaps closer to modern audiences, the Vietnam war (and probably the current war in Iraq), where soldiers are trained to kill, and then forgotten when that period in their lives is over. The American government is also linked to terrorism, and again while this isn’t necessarily responsible for terrorist attacks, being aware of a threat and doing nothing is just as bad. There is also the fact that many Americans are assassinated by the CIA, again to (I’ll use this phrase whenever I can) “to SAVE American lives” (I hope the irony of this isn’t lost on anyone).
In one tongue and cheek scene, the deputy of the CIA meets up with his associate who vocally opposes his methods are sitting down to talk in a restaurant. She criticizes his almost guerrilla type assassination methods, only to be told quite plainly that it’s easy to criticize in retrospect, but when things are moving in reel time decisions need to be made, and after the fact there is no point questioning the decision. Again, questioning the government and it’s decisions becomes a “crime”, and is dubbed as being “wrong”. However, daring to question authority is perhaps a fundamental trait of being an American. The United States is a nation built on fighting against authority because they didn’t like how they were being treated, and saw themselves as a collective of individuals with the same ideals. While currently, the same traits that defined a nation, are being viewed as anti-American. Fundamental rights are being refused, like freedom of speech (a journalist is even assassinated by the CIA, not too subtle there), and rights to privacy (the constant tracking of Bourne and his accomplices through telephones and cameras remind us of our changing world in terms of government surveillance). Again, how high a cost must be made for the sake of security? The film seems to say, that is shouldn’t be the cost of national identity.
Greengrass perfectly weaves narrative, action and cinematography with these undercurrent messages. There are brilliant moments of contrasting symbols, and shifts in atmosphere and tone. One particularly telling moment is when a condemning and out of form with the American ideals is being made, and half the screen is dominated by a tiny American flag on the man’s desk. None too subtly, Greengrass plays with focus and sound so that the audience is aware of the flag, but also realises how terribly ironic the presence of it is compared with the phone call being made. I’m usually not a fan of the shaky-camera, but it works beautifully here, never distracting, and really helps boost up the energy levels. I also love how many of the shots are framed, people and objects obscuring, as well as focusing our attention on emotion and action. It’s one of the best directed films of the year. The performances are also pitch perfect, all the characters are painted with shades of grey, even the more minor ones.
It’s truly a shame this film won’t be considered come Oscar time, and will be written off as purely one of the more entertaining films of the year, rather than one of the most thematically and politically important. I think it’s clear why I consider the film important, but another important ingredient that puts it above so many of it’s contemporaries is the fact that critically and financially it is a success. It reaches more people than a film typical of it’s message and motive. I rarely take this into account, but this is an exception as, for me at least, it’s implications are so important and so strong… I’m happy so many people are seeing it.The more I think about the film, the more I realise I’ve barely scratched the surface… truly an outstanding achievement in modern filmmaking. It’s a film that should be seen on the big screen, and unlike most films that come out of the Hollywood system it’s worth the price of admission. You may be forced to think though, if that isn’t your thing, than perhaps this film isn’t for you.