The fourth Bourne movie comes out this year, basically a rethinking starring sudden new action star Jeremy Renner, so the tenth anniversary of the first non-television, American version of the Robert Ludlum adaptation has never been more appropriate. Here’s Rachel Graf with a hell of a lot to think about in our newest re-view.
The Bourne Identity: Ten Years Ago
Setting out to review The Bourne Identity I imagined myself chuckling knowingly at the memory of being captivated by this box office hit, action thriller. Then, early on in my reviewing experience I realized that this is perhaps the ideal film for this project, because it is, if nothing else, a movie about memory.
So then, I will begin with a bit of autobiography. Take note mindful readers that when I tell you who I am and what I was – and, heck, what American culture was doing ten years ago – I am not only remembering my past but also creating a narrative about the present, just as Jason Bourne seeks to answer the question “Who am I?” by discovering his past.
The film ten years ago
Released in 2002 in what had at the time been referred to as a newly founded “post-9/11” world, The Bourne Identity functioned as a cultural fantasy of the supremacy of skill. Jason Bourne begins the film with no knowledge: he does not know his own name, who he can trust, who is conspiring against him, etc. Yet, because he has the training, intelligence, and strength to do so, he is able to adapt to his surroundings and learn about his circumstances as he goes and not only survive but it would seem to get his own happy ending.
Jason Bourne’s crisis of identity, of an irrecoverable past and a future jeopardized by unknown enemies, is a metaphor for post-9/11 America. At the time of this film’s release, the U.S. government had not yet convened its investigative commission on the terrorist attacks, let alone made conclusions about the perpetrator’s identities or networks. As a teenager in New Jersey who made frequent trips to New York and Philadelphia, it seemed that danger was quite literally everywhere and everyone had to be on his or her guard.
I do not mean to suggest that Bourne is merely a projection of our cultural paranoia. Yes, he is that, too, but his hyper-vigilance allows him to outsmart the covert governmental agents set out to make him disappear. Bourne needs only the skills he cannot forget (like of languages and martial arts) and what he can absorb from the cursory survey of a map or a few phone calls. This is the cultural fantasy – we may not know enough about those who want to destroy us to understand them, but if we are smart enough and fast enough and diligent enough, we can beat them.
My reaction ten years ago
I don’t have a clear recollection of the first time I saw The Bourne Identity, but I do know that I was excited enough about it to see it in theatres and then to lament its various departures from the book. I had read all three of the Ludlum novels before the movie came out. If you must know, I read the first one to impress a guy I liked, but then, as has been the case more than once in my life, my interest surpassed his and I kept reading. If I’m going to label Jason Bourne a cultural fantasy for an insecure nation, I may as well own up to my own fantasies as they relate to the books and the movie. The first of which was that liking this type of thing would convince teenage guys that I was cool. The second, and perhaps harder to come to terms with, was that a Jason Bourne type character would materialize in my life: perceptive, multi-lingual, physically fit, and above all intelligent.
And then there is the fantasy of a Jason Bourne that I am still guilty of indulging – a fantasy that one person can overcome many not by mere virtue of his innate skill, or even passion for life, but instead by virtue of his inquisitiveness. To my fifteen-year-old self, Jason Bourne is a model for the potential utility of intellectual pursuit. Yes, he fights a lot of dudes, stunt drives impossibly well and climbs down European buildings without detection, but so do the people looking for him possess these skills. Jason Bourne is an action hero who reads. He does research. If he didn’t have such a good memory, I bet he would take notes, too.
Despite my aspirations to have the sort of awareness and curiosity that makes Jason Bourne unique among cinematic action-heroes, my ability to identify with Bourne’s character was thwarted by the fact that no amount of effort was going to turn me into a 5’10” muscular man. But there was a love interest and she was pretty rad, too. The most important change from the novels to the books as I saw it at the time was the changing role of the female lead, Marie. In the book Marie is knowledgeable, as much a savior to Jason Bourne as he to her and (SPOILER) they live happily together with babies and stuff. In the film, Marie, though still intelligent and resourceful, is much more a woman in need of saving. From my young proto-feminist point of view, the substitution of a more than self-sufficient partner with a troubled lover was a major loss. Read on for why I’m more comfortable with cinematic Marie now.
When I sat down to watch The Bourne Identity for this review, I had just finished writing a graduate seminar paper on a quite different film, and was looking forward to a different kind of viewing experience – one that was more visceral, with special attention to Damon’s abs and pulse quickening chase scenes (both are still excellent) – but alas, after seven years of film studies, my relationship to movies has changed and I am largely unable to turn off the academic lens.
To me now, The Bourne Identity is not properly an action film about larger-than-life heroics. Well, it is that, but unlike popular ‘90s action films (think Die Hard, Rambo, etc.) The Bourne Identity is about interiority, memory and representation. As the title indicates, this is a movie about “identity.” The movie begins with two related questions, posed to Jason Bourne: “Who are you? What’s your name?” As the film progresses we are offered various models for resolving the question of identity. Who Bourne is might be answered by the name he calls himself (but he goes by many), where he lives, what business he performs, his abilities, his paranoia or the danger he has caused to others. Thus his frequent refrain, “This is who I am,” each time he discovers new information. Perhaps “hero” is a poor choice to describe Bourne. After all, he is not trying to save anyone, although his presence does occasionally put some people in danger, which he tries to mitigate.
All he is trying to do is really to recover from his amnesia or, if he cannot regain his memories, to replace them with knowledge about his identity. It is not until the film’s end that Bourne experiences any memory of who he was before his accident. In the interim, he learns things about himself, including that he knows how to tie expert knots and has an apartment in Paris, but known of these facts resonate: none of it “comes back to him.” So the character spends every moment of the film – when he isn’t kicking ass – trying to piece together a narrative about himself based on his every instinctual reaction.
The movie would be quite different and, I think, better if none of his memories ever came back to him and we as viewers were left like, the character himself, to question what deeds he committed how those bear on his identity in the film’s present. Instead, in a generic flashback scene Jason Bourne remembers the night of his accident and it turns out he really is a good guy – still an assassin, but, you know, the kind with scruples. (Everybody okay with that? Yes? Good, because the film is in its final ten minutes. No? Lucky you, there are sequels.) As long as the truth of the character’s past remains ambiguous, Jason Bourne’s identity is presented to us as the product of his choices. The character is aware of his instincts (like immediately appraising a room for exit points as he explains to Marie), but we as viewers can see only how he acts on those. (One thing we learn about him is that he does not seek out violence; from what we see of the fight scenes and Bourne’s frequent attempts to flee dangerous environments, Bourne never injures his assailants more than necessary.)
As much as I now lament The Bourne Identity‘s refusal to define its protagonists’ identity only on the basis of how he behaves in the film’s present, I realize that this is exactly what it grants to the character of Marie. We don’t learn very much about her, and although she begins her relationship with Bourne by talking at length about herself, she never interrogates the question “Who am I?” for herself. As Treadstone, the secret governmental agency, attempts to learn about her past they ask “Who is she?” and come up only with words like “gypsy” and “ghost.”
All that we really know about Marie is that she knows how to disappear. We gather perhaps as well that she has frequently found herself in distress. She is, after all, introduced at the U.S. consulate, desperately pleading for a visa. But then, later, when Bourne devises an elaborate plan for her to steal hotel records, she sweet-talks them from the concierge in minutes, suggesting a certain familiarity with deception. Telling, when Bourne ponders his own hyper-vigilance as a sign that he is abnormal, she reassures him, “I see the exit signs, too.” She also tells Bourne, “Nobody does the right thing,” when he encourages her to protect herself by going to the police. Most of all, what Marie does and what defines her in the film is to stay with Jason Bourne, even when she has the money and time to flee. Does this mean that she has a lust for danger? Does it mean that she recognizes the good in him? Does it mean that she has her own problems which are bad enough to make being Bourne’s sidekick the best option?
Ten years ago I would have said we don’t know because the film doesn’t take her character seriously. Now, I’m inclined to say that we don’t know these things about Marie’s identity, because they do not define her character. She remains mysterious, not simply because she’s the female love-interest in an action movie, but because her character operates as a foil to Bourne’s. If the film is about his search for identity, acquiring knowledge from multiple sources and recovering memory, Marie’s identity is defined by the choices she makes and not the way she or anyone else understands her past.
Summation: better or worse?
This movie is at least as good now as it was ten years ago, and is probably better. Technically alone, it is very good, from the details of accents, sound editing, digital effects, to acting and cinematography. (Some notes on these below.)
It is not perfect. There is a noticeable break between the second and third act, which is when Bourne ventures to confront Treadstone’s leader in person. At this point the movie becomes a lot more like every other action flick and I get bored. None of the Treadstone stuff is compelling actually. It trades on long-extant fears about government conspiracy without much originality, but these scenes serve an expository function, and, hey, we need some time to pace ourselves between action sequences.
My reading of The Bourne Identity has evolved significantly over these ten years, and I expect that were I to revisit it again in ten more I would have still more to say. I suppose like many teenagers, I identified with Jason Bourne, because everyone is “out to get him,” he cannot articulate why this fact is unjust and yet, he has the skills and desire to survive. Those works in film, art, literature, and music that change in our eyes as we change to help us think through burning questions, as this movie at one time helped me to understand the feeling of not being understood and now portrays a process of defining one’s self, those are the best. And, they get better as we do.
The first language spoken in the film is Italian, not English. If I had to guess, which I will because I’m too lazy to actually count and do the math, I would say that at least 15% of the film’s dialogue is in languages other than English, most of it with subtitles. This choice reflects the global-political aspects of the film and also, seems to me, to comment on the difference between information and knowledge, as we learn plot points from these scenes, but are kept at a distance from understanding.
The first scene takes place on a boat in the dark of night. From the very beginning, everything is uncertain.
In his first scene, Damon is stripped half-nude as bullets are extracted from his body. In the book there’s a hot medical scene: Marie dresses Bourne’s wounds and then, you know they both undress. The film goes out of its way not to sexualize Damon here, with plenty of attention paid to bloody entry wounds and such.
It’s four minutes until we see Damon’s face, echoing the theme of uncertain identity.
The cinematography throughout is quite good, with care taken to match the emotional tenor of each scene. When Bourne wakes, dizzy and groggy on the boat, the camera work is jarring. In the following scene, we enter the CIA (I think) headquarters and the camera is set far back to show the entirety of a cold office room.
In one of only two voice-overs, Damon asks in multiple languages, “Do you know who I am?” This overlays a montage that includes chins ups and ends with him looking into a mirror, recalling most notably for me, Taxi Driver.
Damon stares at his reflection again in a train window as he journeys to Zurich. This movie is helped incredibly by the fact that Matt Damon is a real actor and not merely an action star. I can’t imagine a Tom Cruise or Bruce Willis type performing the subtle insecurity in this scene.
As the movie progresses through its plot, various cinematic genres are referenced. When a sleeping Bourne is woken by park police and disarms them, the 5 second sequence features fast editing from opposite camera angles matching the beat of his blows. (I would call this kung fu style editing.)
This park scene is also interesting to me because Bourne is mistaken for a homeless person, the ultimate signifier for a person without an identity or cultural value, a vulnerable population.
It is unclear how much governmental authority Treadstone has, and whether they are officially supported by the CIA or rogue. One could read this agency in the film as commentary on government culpability for attacks against the US and/or the necessity of maintaining secret agencies to fight terrorist, but that’s a can of worms I’d rather not try to digest.
The one place in the film that has impressive tech is the bank in Zurich, including a handprint scanner. The CIA system is cluttered and takes hours to disassemble from a room. Bourne doesn’t so much as touch a cell phone.
The music and sound editing is also really good. It is sometimes used to create suspense leading up to a chase scene, like at the Consulate, but then also to fool viewers into sharing Bourne’s paranoia, like when Marie gets hotel records and emerges unscathed.
There’s a weird scene when all of the other Treadstone agents are called in to take Bourne out: there are screen overlays and digitized sound effects that recall James Bond films.
I wrote in my notes “♥ Marie.” That about covers it. Also, she has her hair dyed with red streaks. I got red highlights in my hair a few months before the movie was released. Aren’t you glad you know that?
Speaking of female characters, this may be the best role Julia Stiles has been given, because newbie CIA agent works well for her usual stiff, inexplicably nervous, dead-eyed thing.
I enjoy the action scenes in this movie. I don’t usually like action scenes, especially when the camera work is designed to cover stunt doubles and I can’t really tell who is doing what or who is winning. Not a problem here, because Damon did a lot of the stunts himself and the camera work is smart.
The car chase scene is good, not only because Bourne drives a stick shift like nobody’s business or because carnage accrues, but also because Marie’s reactions, which read as curiosity and relative calm to me, provide insight into her character.
Bourne dyes Marie’s hair and despite sloppy scissor technique, gives her a surprisingly decent cut, but what this scene is really about is the sexiness – or emerging love if you’re not the cynical type. Marie kisses Bourne! Well, she tries to a few times, he looks confused and then he kisses her. (I’m not really the cynical type. This scene is sweet.)
That ironic moment when Wombosi is saying that the people who tried to assassinate him should have “kill(ed) me dead” and then a sniper takes him out.
The second voice-over is Bourne’s instructions to Marie for stealing hotel records. She begins to follow his advice, the scene cuts, Bourne tries to phone the hotel lobby (as the voice over describes he would) but no one answers, the voice-over ends, and she emerges outside the hotel with the records. I enjoy this nod/jab at films like Ocean’s Eleven (which Damon had done the year previously) which combine voice-overs with action scenes to save time on exposition.
Bourne makes many phone calls in English to people and places that clearly do not speak English as their first language. As his character can speak these other languages, this seems inconsistent for him, and frankly impractical.
The scene after the two learn that Bourne is probably an assassin, he and Marie share a cab right through Paris at night. Without the context and the actors’ uncomfortable body language, this looks a lot like a romantic comedy sequence.
There’s a scene when Bourne chases another agent through a farmhouse field. In the sky are digitally added birds (thanks DVD commentary) and on the sound track pretty birds’ songs. The moment is tense diagetically, but because this is not an action-thriller it is mellowed by these signs of natural beauty.
Once Marie departs, the film has about 15 minutes left and I get bored. She hasn’t been in every scene before, and I’m not really all that into the implausible romantic plot. I get bored because once Marie is gone Bourne has no one to talk to and the movie stops being about memory.
The Treadstone wrap-up bores me too. Julia Stiles gets her longest scenes played opposite Alexander Conklin. What happens when you multiple one-dimensional acting by one-dimensional? Me being bored. There’s a bit more fighting, we finally “learn” the truth about the Wombosi assassination attempt, etc.
I am perhaps still bitter that the screen writers departed significantly from the novel in the plot’s conclusion. This ending continues to feel too simple. But, they perhaps had plans for the sequel already (which shares almost nothing with the novel of the same name), and anyway, endings are tricky.
I want to ride one of those mopeds around Greece. Preferably with Matt Damon.