Before I could say anything to David, he notices that I’m looking at his book, and starts a conversation with me… and it’s clear he has no clue who I am. And because, you know, I’m a jerk, we have a whole conversation without me telling him who I am, because I want to see how he’ll react when he finally figures it out (his reaction: vague embarrassment at the time; now he just berates me for having been a bit of a dick, which I accept and celebrate. Hey, I already said I was a jerk). In any event, it was an amusing way to have met.
David writes a number of long think pieces on his blog, on a more than irregular basis; his Month of Writers contribution is a prime example of this, and looks at what a popular series of films tells us about our national psyche. And it’s not even a science fiction or fantasy series — at least, not in the ways we usually define them.
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.
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.
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 Schwarzenegger 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?)
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?
(Original entry, with comments, here)