Roland Carette-Meyers binges on the toxic masculinity of The Bourne Ultimatum and yearns for The Hurt Locker to blow it all away.
Ten years ago, I wrapped myself in a blanket on my parents’ couch and watched The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. (This was before we had decided that a “binge” or “marathon” could both be achieved while eating half a bag of BBQ chips on the couch.) The next day, we were going to close out the first real action franchise of the new millennium with The Bourne Ultimatum. More than that, this would—we assumed—close out the first American franchise that was produced and took place in a fully post-9/11 world. A big deal, right?
Last night, my home smelling like garlic and salmon (in a great way, mind you), I popped a Xanax (prescribed, I promise) and suddenly Matt Damon is limping through a blue lit subway station chased by some men we assume are Russian. He’s been…shot or stabbed or something and breaks into a well-equipped first aid station (suggesting a very injury-prone commuter class in Moscow).
Matt, macho as ever, stitches himself—our first real shout out to James Bond (specifically Daniel Craig’s epic use of an AED in an Aston Martin DBS V12). He takes a pause and a dripping faucet triggers some blurry handy-cam memories of Bourne’s indoctrination. An old white man shouts “Will you commit to this program?!” time and again.
By the end of the flashback, a young Russian soldier finds the beleaguered Matt Damon and both raise their guns. Tension, silence. Matt lowers his pistol and whispers, through an upset stomach likely inspired by incessant handy-cam, “My fight is not with you.” –or something like that.
In this cold open, a trope unapologetically borrowed from the world of Bond, we get a brief portrait of an America I believed in then: We’re broken, we’re paranoid, we’re violent, but we have the clarity of mind to stitch ourselves together. We wanted to think of ourselves as a nation that, when given the chance, could not pull the trigger. Ten years later, we’re a nation that can’t not not pull the trigger and work tirelessly to justify our own paranoias. We manufacture danger in the name of reinforcing something that was never there to begin with: our American (read as: Jason Bourne’s) dignity.
Bourne has always killed with impunity, used women as vessels for his own emotional instability, and is singularly minded on a quest for revenge that I honestly still don’t fully (care to) understand.
Suddenly, we cut to a room of old grumpy white people on the hunt of a man and the leader of the group (David Strathairn) says without a trace of irony: “Bourne is still a serious threat until proven otherwise.”
Suddenly, I get it. After a cold open that works through so much of the existential crisis of an America thick with guns, one that has the potential to work beyond its own toxic masculinity, and one that acknowledges and strives to work against the realities of PTSD and other mental illness, we discover that this is a movie that presages everything that we’re stuck in now. Not only does that idea immediately violate the 5th, 6th, 8th,and 14th Amendments of the US Constitution, but it violates one of the central pillars of the United Nations’ work. The state, in any crime, must bear and provide the burden of the proof against a, any suspect. Strathairn doesn’t give a fuck. It is his job to kill Bourne. He does little throughout the course of the movie to provide any evidence of his specific crimes against America. (Yes, we see Bourne kill hella people—but that does not count as a trial by jury.)
This is the main argument that this movie wants to make: Are we a nation of “my fight is not with you,” or a nation of “a threat until proven otherwise”? This is an argument that I would suggest was brilliantly explored in 2008’s The Hurt Locker. Based on how the last ten years went, you can guess what our answer has been thus far. And LOOK, I am not here to suggest any action movie or single text can inform a nation or provide real insight into its identity, but the Bourne trilogy (before subsidies, residuals, and product placement) made as much money as the GDP of a small Caribbean nation; any entity with that economic weight must be taken seriously. FYI, The Hurt Locker made less than 10% at the box office than The Bourne Ultimatum. It is a better movie and does a lot of good work against toxic masculinity.
Matt Damon spends about 99% of the movie running across beautiful cities, killing and punching, and meeting up with Julia Stiles. He only pauses to reflect on water torture and the big fat white asshole who, in a secure location in NYC, “invented” a system of torture so brutal as to wipe his victims clean of their past and their identities.
When we take a moment to snap back to this room of angry white men, we wonder, where is the due process? Where is the system of dignity built by two hundred fifty years of claiming that we are above acts of terror? Bourne is denied a trial. Bourne is marked as evil and Strathairn has been granted by the CIA full authority to act as judge, jury, and executioner. This is our America. These are extreme examples, obviously, but this is it: an America where our fear of…whatever it is we’re afraid of allows us to yield our Constitutional rights to due process. Here’s where I’d say something about Ben Franklin’s “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety,” but my simply mentioning it will do for now because my word count is already crazy.
The final showdown of this film is Matt Damon meeting with the man who invented and worked to propagate soul-crushing, human weapon manufacturing, and “experimental interrogation.” Water boarding is real, as is sleep deprivation torture, and the myriad of other methods more meant to manufacture confessions than to extract real data. A trial related to the development of such practices will begin in less than a month. The ACLU filed a lawsuit against Doctors Mitchell and Jessen, two psychologists contracted by the United States government to design and implement a post-9/11 torture program. The prosecuting attorneys represent three folks who were kidnapped, tortured, and experimented upon per Mitchell and Jessen’s protocols. One of these men died because of his torture. This is the type of real work villain that Bourne confronts, a decade before justice is gestured at.
Okay, maybe this is getting political… Maybe it should? Maybe a film franchise (that grew by another $891.6 million by 2016 with the release of the latest Bourne films) that reflects all our darkest, most selfish, and violent tendencies, one that balances the paranoia of the American people and of its government needs to be called out on some shit.
Oh, and by the way, this film did not pass the Bechdel Test. Fuck that. Worlds without women, worlds manufactured to silence or ignore women also manufacture toxic masculinity.
At some point in this two-hour war porn, Julia Stiles and Matt Damon take a pleasant ferry ride to Tangiers from the southern coast of Spain. Here we met Desh, the only person of color in this entire film with a name. He has no lines. He appears at minute 52 and spends 16 minutes blowing up two cars and chasing Julia Stiles through darkened Moroccan alleys. We see him scowl, we see him skulk about, we NEVER hear his voice. In fact, all he does to advance the plot is kill some old white guy and represent “Scary Black Man.”
We have a (helmet-free) motorcycle chase and Strathairn shouting “It ends when we’ve won!” Desh is an American agent, trusted and trained and on the CIA’s payroll. His only crime against our protagonists? Chasing an out-of-breath white woman that he has been ordered by his government to assassinate as she has been deemed a threat (by Strathairn acting, of course, on his own whims). Now, like, trying to kill people is not good, BUT in the cold open, we see that Bourne understands that folks like Desh and the Russian cop are simply tools used by their superiors. Bourne has the capacity for mercy, and decides to disregard this when faced with a man of color.
Desh is strangled slowly and violently in a bathroom as Julia Stiles watches in grateful horror. This is the same Matt Damon who refused to kill the white cop in the cold open and who will refuse to kill the white agent hunting him at the end of the film. Desh was a death that the writers thought we could bear, one that we would understand, and maybe even need. Eight years, five months, 23 days later, Trayvon Martin is killed for little more than being a person of color outside in a dark place.
The Bourne Ultimatum is not responsible for Mr. Martin’s death, nor yet is it an allegory for our mishandling of the Arab Spring. This film didn’t invent toxic masculinity nor yet toxic American nationalism. Desh is not necessarily a stand-in for any man of color killed for being too near a white woman. Julia Stiles is not necessarily a stand-in for any woman who surrenders her freedom to a white man with good biceps. Strathairn is not necessarily a stand-in for every selfish, bigoted, white man in government. But, these characters are the shadows of something sinister, part of a franchise worth $1.8 billion dollars that, taken at face value, justifies Trump to use something called the “Mother of all Bombs” on an embattled nation and that catalyzes such quotes from US Secretary of Defense Mattis as “digging into tunnels to count dead bodies is probably not a good use of our troops’ time…”
Yikes, what would we have been like if we just waited a bit longer for The Hurt Locker to come out and help us take down all the toxic masculinity this nonsense builds up.