David Louis Edelman David Louis Edelman

The Bourne Paranoia

Here are a few things that every American knows.

  • The world is a vile and dangerous place.
  • America is blindly and irrationally hated by just about everybody outside of our borders.
  • If we left our security up to the peaceniks, bureaucrats, and Boy Scouts we elect to national office, the United States would be a smoldering ruin in a matter of months.
  • Therefore it’s necessary that we fund a zillion intelligence agencies and black ops teams who routinely conduct secret assassinations in the name of defending our country.
  • Nevertheless, despite our massive economic and military power, the United States is drastically outnumbered and constantly on the verge of apocalypse.

The Bourne Identity posterAt least, these are the assumptions behind just about every spy thriller ever made. Now I find myself wondering: When the hell did these assumptions become so ingrained in our psyche? When did we blithely start accepting this worldview? Who says the United States should behave this way — and, for that matter, when did we all decide that the United States actually does behave this way? What the fuck happened to my country?

These assumptions are also the ones that underline 2002’s The Bourne Identity. It’s a nice little popcorn flick with a plot so familiar you can slip into it like an old bathrobe. Matt Damon plays Matt Damon, playing a CIA-funded black ops assassin who has a change of heart because the agency has Gone Too Far. Now after a bout of amnesia, he finds himself on the run from the very organization that funded him. Car chases and dead bodies ensue. Spoiler alert: the heroic Matt Damon gets the girl, and the villainous Chris Cooper gets shot in the head. (Oh, and FYI, there are more spoilers below.)

And then someone had the inspired idea of hiring Paul Greengrass (Bloody Sunday, United 93) to take over the franchise. To call The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum better films than their predecessor is kind of like calling a fine aged pinot grigio better than a Zima. They’re among the most intelligent, well-crafted, thoughtful thrillers about American paranoia that I’ve ever seen. (And holy crap, did you realize Matt Damon could act?)

Suddenly our protagonist is no longer just a youthful maverick spy fleeing across Europe with a spunky German chick in tow. Jason Bourne is not so much a character in Supremacy and Ultimatum as he is a manifestation of the American subconscious. He’s an unstoppable force who never tires, who never gives up, who can never be killed. Imagine a cross between Batman and Patrick Henry who knows how to kill people with a plastic pen.

Richard Corliss clearly noticed the transformation in his Time magazine review of The Bourne Ultimatum:

That’s the secret of this character, and Bond and John McClane and all the other action-movie studs. They are a projection of American power — or a memory of it, and the poignant wish it could somehow return. In real life, as a nation these days, we can achieve next to nothing. But in the Bourne movies just one of us, grim, muscular and photogenic, can take on all villains, all at once, and leave them outwitted, dead, disgraced. That’s a macho fantasy of the highest, purest, most lunatic order.

Corliss is on to something here, but I think he’s got it exactly backwards. Jason Bourne isn’t just an action stud in the James Bond mold; Bourne is, in fact, a calculated response to James Bond, or more than that, he’s the anti-James Bond. James Bond on the Bizarro planet. Is it an accident that Jason Bourne and James Bond have the same initials? (Well, actually it probably is. But you’d have to ask Robert Ludlum, who created the character, and he’s dead. But apparently Greengrass didn’t read the Ludlum novels anyway.)

James Bond uses an assortment of high-tech gadgets helpfully provided to him by the British government. Sleek guns, high-tech cars, gizmos that are notable mainly for the way they’re camouflaged inside ordinary objects. Over the years, Bond has used:

  • A remote-controlled BMW with rocket launcher
  • A tricked-out surfboard with a hidden compartment for guns and explosives
  • A ballpoint pen grenade
  • A wristwatch with a built-in laser cutter
  • An escape pod concealed in a ski jacket

Jason Bourne, by contrast, uses such glamorous weapons as:

  • A cheap rotating fan
  • A rolled-up newspaper
  • Laundry pulled from a clothesline
  • A beat-up Cooper Mini
  • A plastic pen
  • A hardback book

But even more interesting than the contrast of weapons is the contrast of attitudes towards government. James Bond is, in many ways, a manifestation of how the British would like to see themselves: debonair and worldly; as technologically adept as the Americans, without sacrificing class and gentility; dangerous when crossed. In the world of James Bond, the British government might be stodgy, but its heart is in the right place.

The Bourne Supremacy posterJason Bourne, on the other hand, is a maverick who was once broken by his own government and is now on the run from it. In the world of Jason Bourne, the United States government is composed of equal parts corrupt slimeball and impotent douchebag, with a small contingent of do-gooders skulking around the fringes.

We can discuss Great Britain and James Bond another day. As for America: how did we get to this point? When did we get to the point that the assumptions outlined at the top of this article became commonplace?

I imagine it began in the aftermath of World War II as we ramped up to fight the Communists in their quest for world domination. It was fertilized by the suspicious assassination of John F. Kennedy, watered by Nixon’s dirty tricks in Watergate, nurtured by Reagan’s Iran/Contra hijinks, and ripened by George W. Bush’s global war on terror. And no, it wasn’t just the province of Republican administrations; Johnson was as manipulative a son-of-a-bitch as they come, Clinton did very little to stop or reverse the trend, and Carter played right into the paranoids’ hands by letting a bunch of religious maniacs hold Americans hostage in Iran without consequence.

The end result is that we the people don’t believe in the United States anymore.

Oh, sure, we believe in the people of the United States. We believe that our neighbors here in this country are largely honest, decent, hard-working citizens. But all the things the United States is supposed to stand for — the idea that free and open societies work better than closed ones, the idea that we can work out our differences through courts and legislation, the idea that we should live by principles of law and reason rather than mere tribalism — we don’t have faith in those things anymore. The courts are rigged against us, the government is laced with corruption and undue lobbying influence, the police are either too hampered by bureaucracy or too brutal and bloodthirsty to trust.

No, we need maverick heroes like Jason Bourne (and John McClane, and James Bond, and Indiana Jones, and Batman, and Jack Bauer, and every character that Arnold Schwarzeneggar ever played) who can skirt the law, who can actually break the law when they deem fit and not be held accountable for their actions because we know they’re really good, just, honorable people acting in our best interests. And every situation we face is a 24 situation. Al Qaeda has agents infiltrating your living room, they’re going to blow up the Sears Tower at any minute, there’s a ticking bomb about to go off! What, you want to trust the police at a time like this? You want to follow stupid laws hammered out by some ignorant yahoos in Washington who spend all their time in bed with lobbyists? Are you crazy? We’ve got to do anything we can to prevent this! Law and order be damned, we’ve got to act now now now!

It would be one thing if this was just the exaggerated attitude of the movies. But it’s not.

When a handful of jihadist fanatics murdered three thousand people in 2001, we didn’t trust that we could resolve this through the international cooperation of law enforcement agencies. No, we needed to lash out, we needed to send a disproportionate response, we needed to punish those states who were sympathetic to our enemies. Osama bin Laden isn’t just some robed lunatic with a gun in a cave; he’s evil incarnate. He’s Adolf Hitler! And when you’re facing Adolf Hitler, you can’t resort to ordinary tactics. Extremism in the defense of liberty tain’t no vice.

When Barack Obama recently suggested that even bin Laden should be given due process and his day in court, the nation scoffed. Due process? Man, due process doesn’t work! If we capture that son-of-a-bitch, we need to string him up but good. If you put him in a courtroom with F. Lee Bailey as his attorney, he’ll argue his way out of a conviction and be walking by sundown! Nope, only a secret military trial and execution will do.

(It’s the same mentality that’s at work with the Bush Administration’s runaround of the FISA limits on wiretapping. This just astounds me. FISA allows secret, anonymous, unaccountable intelligence agents to stretch the bounds of the Constitution by conducting wiretaps on U.S. citizens simply by getting rubber-stamp permission from a secret, anonymous, unaccountable judge — and the Bush Administration doesn’t think that’s enough?)

The Bourne Ultimatum posterI just don’t believe this paranoid worldview is sustainable. And director Paul Greengrass doesn’t either. Like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart or Irving’s Headless Horseman, these things come back to haunt us. And for Greengrass, in The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum, that Headless Horseman is Jason Bourne.

Notice the look of fear in the eyes of the various intelligence impresarios that Bourne runs across (played ably by Brian Cox, Chris Cooper, Joan Allen, and David Straitharn). Bourne isn’t just a renegade spy; he’s the twitch of conscience that you feel in the middle of the night, he’s the thing that haunts you after you’ve just violated international law in the name of the United States of America. Soil the Constitution, and Jason Bourne will get you.

Interestingly enough, the manifestation of the American subconscious isn’t a bloodthirsty killer. Time and again in these films, we’re subjected to the image of Bourne approaching a target with gun in hand, only to turn away at the last moment and not shoot. Bruce Willis’s John McClane gives a cheerful “Yippeekayay, motherfucker” before he kills; James Bond’s whole signature move is to turn towards the camera, strike a pose, and fire a gun until cartoony blood flows over the lens. I haven’t seen all of the Bond films, but from what I remember every single villain meets some kind of nasty demise in the end. I can think of at least six distinct scenes in the Bourne films where the hero has the villain in his sights, unarmed, gun in hand, and he fails to pull the trigger.

But if Damon’s character isn’t a killer at heart, he isn’t a do-gooder either. He’s not on a righteous crusade to bring America back to lily-white purity. In fact, he’s almost completely self-absorbed; he doesn’t particularly seem to care about America or the government or international law. Sure, he cares for the various mousy white women who get into trouble because of him, but only insomuch as they intersect his path and get in trouble on his behalf.

All of this culminates in what is, to me, one of the most stunning, jaw-dropping, unforgettable scenes in the past decade of film. At the end of Supremacy, Jason Bourne drops in on the teenaged daughter of two of his early assassination targets. And he apologizes.

There’s something incredibly primal about the scene. Bourne is exhausted, gruff, half in shadow; he seems immense alongside the poor girl, who mistakes him at first for a burglar. But Bourne quickly calms her down. He tells her that, contrary to what she’s been told, her parents didn’t die in a murder/suicide. They were gunned down by him, on assignment from the CIA. “It changes things, that knowledge, doesn’t it?” says Bourne. The terrified girl nods. And then Bourne gets up, mumbles “I’m sorry,” and walks out of the room.

It reminded me of that grass-roots campaign that went around the web in the wake of John Kerry’s defeat in the 2004 presidential elections. Remember that? It featured thousands of Americans taking pictures of themselves holding up signs for the world to read expressing how sorry we are that we couldn’t stop George W. Bush from taking office for another four years. (Update 10/4/07: The name of the campaign was “Sorry Everybody,” and you can see the photos at www.sorryeverybody.com.)

When does the American paranoia end? And who will stand up and apologize once it’s over?

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  1. Jason M. Robertson on October 4, 2007 at 10:59 am  Chain link

    Best David Louis Edelman blog post, ever.

    Ultimatum was a really good movie, and sadly I don’t remember Identity well enough to recall if the thematic reconsideration from Supremacy on was that sharp, but certainly the franchise came through in the end.

    But why am I talking about the movies when the sentiment you’re using them to articulate is so much more important? As someone who was far too hawkish on Iraq at one time, the notion of the necessity of apology strikes particularly deep.

  2. Lou Anders on October 5, 2007 at 10:30 am  Chain link

    I second Jason. Best damn blog post ever. Also, if you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend Spy Game, the Robert Redford, Brad Pitt film from Tony Scott. One of the best (and I’m told by friends who know) most accurate portrayals of the inside of the CIA to date.

  3. David Louis Edelman on October 5, 2007 at 12:11 pm  Chain link

    Thanks, Jason and Lou.

    I will definitely have to try Spy Game. Believe it or not, we’ve had the DVD sitting on our shelf still wrapped in the cellophane since we accidentally ordered it from the DVD club, oh, four years ago? Just never had much inclination to watch it.

  4. George Pedrosa on October 5, 2007 at 1:13 pm  Chain link

    Another excellent movie that touches on this subject is The Good Shepherd. Great article, by the way… I love when you bring these new interpretations of works, like you did with Alien and Lord of the Rings…

  5. David de Beer on October 6, 2007 at 5:44 am  Chain link

    it is a very thoughtful post and I’m linking it to my lj, if you don’t mind.

    It is very true that when paranoia is most rampant people are likely to forget the necessity of due process; it may not be perfect always, but those laws exist not to protect the Bin Ladin’s, but the people themselves.
    Lynching is quick, easy and satsifying, but…it’s too easy.
    Today you may stand upon the right side and the guy getting lynched is a terrorist or pedophile, but it could just as easily be you in the mob’s cross-hairs tomorrow.
    Innocent until proven guilty.
    It is ironic that the United States believes itself to stand for liberty and equality, and yet those notions have become seriously warped.
    James Fenimore Cooper called it the tyranny of the masses.

    Jason Bourne apologizing was one of my favorite scenes too; and what I liked about it, and maybe here’s your answer, is that he was apologizing for himself, not his country.

    Sure, he was just following orders, and it’s always been the case that the ones who follow orders and carry out violence are the ones who are crucified, and the ones who gave them the orders and convinced them there was a need for violence on behalf of their country – most of these retire to the Caribbean and live in their yachts.

    It’s probably important for Americans to remember that it is not your country at fault here; it is a few men who have hi-jacked your nation for their own ends.
    That happens in every country, and the ones who carry the guilt are the soldiers.
    But there is a differece between apologizing and an attempt at apologetica – the latter is an attempt to justifiably excuse yourself.

    What I liked most about that scene where Bourne apologized?
    He apologized for the harm he’d done to others, but he didn’t seek to have himself excused for what he’d done. There was no excuse for his past, and I most of all liked that he didn’t try to shift the blame onto others even though he could. He accepted responsibility for his own part in it. And then he tried to get on with his life.
    That’s the other thing – you cannot undo what’s been done, only get on with living.

  6. David Louis Edelman on October 6, 2007 at 4:00 pm  Chain link

    Thanks, David. Agreed, it’s very interesting how Bourne apologizes just for himself. In fact, I don’t think he says a single word about his country one way or the other through the whole trilogy. He’s very libertarian in that sense (and one might even say, very true to the ideals of the founding fathers as well).

  7. Dave Hutchinson on October 7, 2007 at 5:10 pm  Chain link

    Terrific post; really enjoyed that.
    Of course, one thing that all the characters you mention (and you missed out Dirty Harry) share is expertise. There’s a line in Identity where Bourne tells Marie he knows that, at the altitude where they happen to be right then, he can run flat-out for a quarter of a mile before his hands start to shake. That’s the kind of knowledge not granted to most of us.
    All these men – and they are all men – are able in the environment they find themselves in, and that’s something I think harks back to Natty Bummpo.

  8. A.R.Yngve on October 8, 2007 at 6:13 am  Chain link

    A very good post/essay.

    I have always admired the ideals on which the USA were founded, and I dearly wish the U.S. as a whole will find its way back to those ideals. (They’re in the Constitution. Look it up, and read Thomas Paine.)

    Despite the mess and moral decay of the past six years (secret prisons, paranoia, Iraq, the insult to humanity that is “24”), I’ve never forgotten that America saved Europe from Hitler AND Stalin AND put people on the Moon. Anyone who was ever that great, can be that great again.

  9. Larry on October 9, 2007 at 4:22 pm  Chain link

    Your writing really struck a chord with me. Some thoughts:

    Hollywood has decided, apparently en masse, that America no longer represents the good guys. The CIA is usually the proxy target of the attack, but the hostility is as relentless as Bourne. Just this week I’ve watched the evil CIA act out on The Unit, Prison Break, and Eureka. I haven’t tried Chuck, but I can guess…I’m sure there are many more examples. And this year’s stream of anti-government films just won’t quit. George Clooney more or less leads the charge, but you’re nobody if you aren’t in one.

    As an aside, I did attempt the original novels back in the day, and found them completely unreadable. Ludlum was really big on italics. It makes me shudder.

    Your questions fascinate me.

    When the hell did these assumptions become so ingrained in our psyche? When did we blithely start accepting this worldview?

    I would link it to the 20th century’s shift from national to ideological conflict, combined with the steadily increasing ability (first in Bond films; later in reality) of non-state actors to cause ever greater harm. However, I’m not sure they’re as ingrained as you think, at least in the caricatured form you present.

    Who says the United States should behave this way — and, for that matter, when did we all decide that the United States actually does behave this way? As for America: how did we get to this point? When did we get to the point that the assumptions outlined at the top of this article became commonplace?

    The origin of the other assumption, that America really is the evil empire, is of equal interest, no? It began, perhaps, with the McCarthy hearings, and metastasized during Vietnam. Desert Storm, a little, Bosnia, 9/11, and Afghanistan detoxified things, but Iraq2 and Bushism in general sent it back the other way.

    The end result is that we the people don’t believe in the United States anymore….Oh, sure, we believe in the people of the United States. We believe that our neighbors here in this country are largely honest, decent, hard-working citizens. But all the things the United States is supposed to stand for — the idea that free and open societies work better than closed ones, the idea that we can work out our differences through courts and legislation, the idea that we should live by principles of law and reason rather than mere tribalism — we don’t have faith in those things anymore.

    Is that “we the people” or “you the people”? I’d say that we live by those principles as much as we always have. With exceptions, we are still progressing. Isn’t the military America’s most trusted institution, far exceeding say, the press? Isn’t the military more reflective of “us” than the CIA? Shall we compare how we treated Muslim-Americans after 9/11 with how we treated Japanese-Americans during WWII? Our progress in civil rights since the Cold War began?

    When a handful of jihadist fanatics murdered three thousand people in 2001, we didn’t trust that we could resolve this through the international cooperation of law enforcement agencies.

    Isn’t that because “law enforcement” had been our approach until that day, with disastrous results? Robed, encaved, gun-toting lunatics aren’t able to bring down skyscrapers, actually. And you may remember the outstanding success of legal processes in dealing with Nazis at Nuremburg, or more recently Milosevic and Saddam. Because legal systems can handle most situations doesn’t mean that they can or should be forced to handle them all.

    (It’s the same mentality that’s at work with the Bush Administration’s runaround of the FISA limits on wiretapping. This just astounds me. FISA allows secret, anonymous, unaccountable intelligence agents to stretch the bounds of the Constitution by conducting wiretaps on U.S. citizens simply by getting rubber-stamp permission from a secret, anonymous, unaccountable judge — and the Bush Administration doesn’t think that’s enough?)

    Isn’t the fact that the Congress has endorsed those powers a sign that the executive has not significantly abused them? I.e., that government can be trusted to do certain things? Perhaps, objectively, at least for the moment, they are necessary, not to mention effective.

    Like Poe’s Tell-Tale Heart or Irving’s Headless Horseman, these things come back to haunt us.

    For the left, isn’t Osama the real Headless one, come to avenge our crimes against the downtrodden?

    Interestingly enough, the manifestation of the American subconscious isn’t a bloodthirsty killer…He’s not on a righteous crusade to bring America back to lily-white purity. In fact, he’s almost completely self-absorbed; he doesn’t particularly seem to care about America or the government or international law. Sure, he cares for the various mousy white women who get into trouble because of him, but only insomuch as they intersect his path and get in trouble on his behalf.

    Bourne is not the American subconscious; he’s the anti-American subconscious. Of course he doesn’t kill people! Of course he, Clinton-like, apologizes. He isn’t a do-gooder, but he would be if he could get the evil ones to just leave him alone. (And what’s with the “white” references?)

  10. David Louis Edelman on October 9, 2007 at 4:40 pm  Chain link

    Thanks for acting as the Devil’s advocate, Larry. Some good thoughts.

    I wonder if you’re right that this whole conception of the American government as Bad Guy is largely a product of Hollywood. The Hollywood types, of course, would just respond by saying that they’re “holding a mirror up to society” and reflecting back who we already are. That just leads us into the whole chicken-and-egg question.

    The fact remains that if 9/11 had happened on, say, 9/11/55, the Hollywood reaction would have been to show a decent, square-jawed G-Man played by Jimmy Stewart relentlessly tracking down the enemy. The bad guy would’ve gotten his day in court, giving Jimmy Stewart the chance to make a long, stirring speech about patriotism and the goodness of the American people.

    I can’t imagine that scenario playing well on the big screen today. Today that fictional Jimmy Stewart movie scenario seems hopelessly naive.

    And what’s with the “white” references?

    Dunno, it just came out that way. You’re right, probably an extraneous adjective here.

  11. […] And they wonder why everybody hates them… Interesting review of The Bourne Identity, with relevance to this […]

  12. Gari N. Corp on December 19, 2007 at 10:01 am  Chain link

    There are no instances in Bond films where the chief villain meets a bad end, although there are a few where bond hesitates or does not act. The main instance where this happens is in the Living Daylights, where Timothy Dalton (yes, him) does not shoot a pretty assassin, mostly because he fancies her. it’s worth noting that this sensitive Bond was thrown over the side at the same time as Dalton. But the more recent films have illustrated some ambivalence over Bond’s killing, and the spying game in general. You might, though, see this as a reaction to the entrance of spies like Bourne.

    Of course, if you go back far enough you come to Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer (about whom three films were made, by the same producer as the Bonds, if I recall), who embodied the idea that spying is a nasty pointless business in pursuit of nebulous aims, though those films weren’t half as violent as today’s action films. But those films featured zithers on the soundtrack, ferchrissakes.

  13. Hugh Casey on December 19, 2007 at 12:35 pm  Chain link

    A very good, very thoughtful post. I don’t know yet if I agree with all of it, but it certainly gives a lot of food for thought.

    Nice work.

  14. sam murphy on December 19, 2007 at 9:28 pm  Chain link

    Pleases me no end that others noticed the apology scene. I thought it was the most significant moment of any spy thriller I’d ever seen (second only to when Flint is awakened from a coma by an ultra special wristwatch 😉

    I was mostly surprised that that scene would get by hollywood pablum filter being how it totally humanized their cash cow franchise hero. I wonder if the next Bourne may start with a coincidental meeting between them again…
    Perhaps with the theme where Bourne warns a new liberal (black female) president to ‘Get It Right”

  15. Leah on December 20, 2007 at 10:33 am  Chain link

    IMHO, the apology was put in there because in the original books, Bourne wasn’t originally a killer – he merely took credit and pretended to be a killer, to bait the real bad guys. In the books, he only started killing when, as an amnesiac, he learned his (fake) identity, and was on the run.

    In the update, since they had left this plot part out completely, they needed to put something in to tell us that Bourne wasn’t your average Standard Assassin, killing on orders without fail. He had a conscience. In the books, he wrestled with his conscience from kill one, which was only self defense from people who thought he was a real bad guy himself.

    However, the points you have made are still valid within the arena of today’s culture. Not many have devoured the Bourne books like I did – even Eric van Lustbader’s continuation of the series – so most only know of Damon’s Jason Bourne, not Ludlum’s. Damon’s Bourne also wears the assassin persona uncomfortably, leading to the apology scene. Which is a fine example of screen writing and acting.

    And while I have read all the books, the movies are still on my christmas wish list.

  16. Geoffrey Allan Plauche on February 12, 2008 at 2:05 am  Chain link

    Larry wrote: “Is that “we the people” or “you the people”? I’d say that we live by those principles as much as we always have. With exceptions, we are still progressing. Isn’t the military America’s most trusted institution, far exceeding say, the press? Isn’t the military more reflective of “us” than the CIA?”

    Funny, back during the founding of the United States of America, a standing army was distrusted and for good reason. The Founding Fathers knew that a large standing army would be a temptation to use (against perceived threats both foreign and domestic) and that formal military culture is antithetical to the spirit of independence and liberty upon which this country was founded.

    Larry wrote: “Isn’t the fact that the Congress has endorsed those powers a sign that the executive has not significantly abused them? I.e., that government can be trusted to do certain things? Perhaps, objectively, at least for the moment, they are necessary, not to mention effective.”

    Or it could be a mark of Congress caving in to executive dominance, to the break down of the checks and balances built into the Constitution.

  17. Goner on February 12, 2008 at 5:24 am  Chain link

    Feel that the trilogy has come together quite nicely, though the films are without doubt different from the Ludlum novels it doesn’t detract from the films and still manages to put a smile on my face. It has a great plot with suspense and plenty of action as long as you don’t take it to seriously you’ll enjoy a truely great trilogy.

  18. Haiden on December 3, 2008 at 12:12 am  Chain link

    The America I always believed in hasn’t existed in over a century.
    The tenth ammendment might as well be deleted as it has been ignored since the late 19th century.

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