Greengrass: Jason Bourne (2016)
For a moment it looked as if Matt Damon might not ever reprise his role as Jason Bourne, and that the franchise itself might have come to an end with Jeremy Renner’s performance of Bourne in The Bourne Legacy. Sixteen years after The Bourne Identity was first released, and nine years after the original trilogy ended, however, Bourne is back, although this is a very different kind of film in both tone and atmosphere than any others in the series. Almost entirely divested of narrative, the vast majority of Jason Bourne takes place in front of computers or mobile screens, making for a series of set pieces that are data-driven, rather than character-driven, generated by the re-emergence of the data set that comprises Bourne’s original character in the opening scenes of the film. This time around, all the characters feel like aggregates of data, not just Bourne, with the result that Bourne feels less distinctive in turn, and is largely displaced from the film as a whole. Barely appearing in the first act, and limited to about two pages of dialogue across the entire screenplay, Bourne is such an impressionistic and notional entity here that the name of the film plays as an anxious reminder that Bourne still is – or should be – the focus of the events and franchise.
To some extent, that results from Damon absorbing some of the flatness and coldness that Renner brought to his performance in The Bourne Legacy. But it’s also because Bourne’s story feels like less of an outlier in 2016, a time when data and personal identity were more intertwined than could ever have been imagined in 2000. If anything, it’s the physical dialogue and face-to-face interactions that feel oddly leaden and unrealistic in Jason Bourne. Given that the screenplay leans fairly heavily on CIA agent Heather Lee, who is assigned to bring Bourne in, it makes sense that Alicia Vikander was chosen for the part, since her voice has an unusual tonality and modality that seems capable of expressing about any emotion at any one time, but equally adept at expressing nothing at all. As the only figure who interacts with Bourne for any length of time, Lee contains his character as much as she develops it, setting the stage for a film in which the “field” remains perpetually dissociated from the CIA control centre, and in which characters are replaced by sudden pivots in data.
With most of the script consisting of sharp directives or demands for information it’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the film took on a second life as a meme before it was even released. In fact, Jason Bourne acts as a kind of microcosm for the racial politics of memes more generally, since the main purpose of the only black character in the film – CIA agent Craig Jeffers, played by Ato Essandoh – seems to be to accentuate the directive and expository quality of the script to hyperbolic proportions. In meme culture generally, the pronouncements of black folk are frequently invoked as a way of negotiating the boundaries of white identity in a world in which whiteness is forced to question itself as never before. So it is in Jason Bourne, or in the memes surrounding Jason Bourne – beyond a certain point, the two start to become indistinguishable – as the film’s only black character becomes the privileged mouthpiece for the dissolution of white paternal authority that has always been the driving force of the franchise, and of Bourne’s efforts to reimagine who he can become.
With the dialogue and the characterisation of the film so flattened, much of the momentum is provided by location, and by shifts in location. This has always been a part of the franchise, but it’s extended exponentially here, as Greengrass takes us through about twenty shifts in location in the first twenty minutes alone. Rather than focusing on a globe-trotting panorama of exotic locations, as occurred in the first film, the very idea of location starts to break down in Jason Bourne, making for a series of set pieces that seek out the most precarious borders and thresholds at Europe at the moment they take place. Sometimes these borders are physical or administrative, but more often than not they are thresholds of imminent chaos, overwhelming flux and the precipice of precarity – tipping-points at which crowds are mobilized, and at which democratic governments reveal their more fascist agendas. Out of all the Bourne films he has directed, Jason Bourne is where Greengrass gives the most time to his own particular interest in depicting revolutionary and insurgent spectacles, to the point where Bourne himself gradually feels like a mere vehicle or conduit for a film about the volatile devolution of contemporary Europe, a situation that Greengrass will go on to contemplate even more unwaveringly and systematically in 22 July.
These thresholds of precarity are the only place where Bourne can hide, as the only place to remain off-grid turn out to be scenarios where the grid itself is on the cusp of collapse, both as a technological network and as a metaphor for understanding the global flow of information. From the opening encounter with Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons, which takes place against a Greek anti-government riot, Greengrass sets out to tap into the pulse of precarity surging across Europe, subsuming Bourne into his efforts to envisage the cusp of popular uprisings as they start to spread, both physically and affectively, across the continent as a whole. When the film isn’t focused on those tipping-points, it’s largely preoccupied with sustained tracking sequences, during which Greengrass nails the blue-tinged, steel-shelled, glassy palette of neoliberal Europe, in which everything looks as if it is lit by digital light, or at least designed to look flattering and accommodating to a world lit by digital devices. The most spectacular moments of the film tend to come when these precarious and anonymous spaces match up, and Greengrass reinvests neoliberal space with everything it suppresses, including the way in which it seems to suppress cinematic treatments of that suppression.
That take on neoliberal space is particularly spectacular in a sustained scene that occurs in and around the Woolwich Arsenal railway station in the Docklands neighborhood of London. More than any other sequence in the film, Greengrass here evinces an exquisite sensitivity to the blandness, drabness and seamlessness of neoliberal “public” space – space that is designed to avoid any local texture or colour that can be immediately and invisibly branded; space divested of the contingencies of space. Given that one of the key horrors of terrorist spectacle is forcing people to re-experience precisely that sense of the public suppressed by neoliberal space, it makes sense that neoliberal space has gravitated into both the ideal target and venue for terrorist spectacle. While not a terrorist per se, Bourne can only hide in plain sight at the cusp of this crowd generated by terrorism, resulting in an eerie scene in which he eludes his pursuers by setting off a series of fire alarms and suffusing the area around the station with a gathering terrorist awareness – what might be described as a collective proprioception of terror – before allowing the gathering crowd to disspate once again, removing himself in the brief interlude during which they come together as a crowd.
Within that environment, there is very little room for Bourne to evolve as a character, although what evolution does occur tends to be framed in terms of the logic of terrorism as well. On the face of it, Bourne’s personal mission in Jason Bourne is to discover the truth about his father, whose murder he revists in a series of flashbacks. Yet while these flashbacks may suggest a deeper or older Bourne, they also reveal that Bourne’s father was not only murdered in a terrorist-like attack, but that this terrorist-like attack involved the perpetrator plunging a car into a crowd in the manner of contemporary terrorism. While Bourne’s father might have been killed years ago, the nature of his death feels more at home in 2016 than in 1996, explaining why Bourne’s flashbacks tend to jolt awkwardly and uncomfortably back into the present tense, rather than standing alone or functioning properly as flashbacks. While in some sense being a terrorist survivor is integral to Bourne’s identity, he has to also position himself at the cusp of precarious terror in order to survive, undermining the capacity of of the flashbacks to orient the film, or to provide Bourne with any prior, deeper identity, let alone broker the emotional reunion with his father he desires.
Indeed, as the film proceeds, it becomes clear that Bourne is not trying to recover an individual identity – that ship has sailed – so much as different kind of subjectivity, one that is dependent on an older idea of cinema as much as an older idea of character. Yet although Bourne may be trying to seek out this older humanity, it’s only his post-human attributes – the fact that he is still in some sense “programmed” – that allow him to survive long enough to seek it out in the first place. As a result, his character, drama, story – whatever you call it – seems to have reached its nadir over the course of Jason Bourne, explaining why it is progressively elided from the film. With the death of Julia Stiles’ Nicky Parsons in the opening act comes the last gap of the affective architecture of the original franchise, meaning that Bourne’s efforts to recover his relationship with his father can’t possibly ramify as a character drama, but instead plays as a nostalgia for an older kind of paternalistic government agency, one that was (at least theoretically) deserving of our trust.
For that reason, the second act of the film tends to focus more on the corruption within the CIA, and especially the relationship between CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and tech guru Aaron Kaloor (Riz Ahmed), founder of the social media platform Deep Dream. Early in Jason Bourne, it emerges that Dewey thinks that regular government surveillance is no longer adequate, and that even “gathering metadata is no longer adequate,” leading him to reach out to Kaloor and fund Deep Dream on the understanding that the CIA will be given a backdoor into the platform when it is completed, and will be permitted to use it to monitor users. Ironically, Deep Dream itself is marketed as actually resolving all the contradictions of social media, simultaneously providing its users with an unprecedented degree of visibility, but also with an unprecedented freedom from surveillance. When it comes to the launch in Las Vegas, which occupies the last act of the film, Kaloor has decided that he wants to part ways with Dewey and the CIA, resulting in Dewey organizing an assassination attempt on Kaloor that sees Bourne also arrive in Vegas as collateral damage.
Yet while Bourne may be integrated into this showdown between Dewey and Kaloor, he never really feels material – in every sense of the word – to the final scenes of the film. Instead, Bourne is deflected into the formal substrate of the film, by way of a sustained car chase that more or less supplants his personal story, and which translates his need to inhabit the very cusp of precarity into the way he navigates the Vegas cityscape from behind the wheel. Typically, car chases are about continually eluding the potential for chaotic destruction of an entire cityscape, but in Bourne’s case, the destruction mounts and mounts, never quite exceeding his capacity to remain ahead of it, but never assuring him a clear or fluid passage either. The amount of damage to other cars, in particular, is enormous, since taking a car even marginally off road, or against the flow of traffic, is immediately disastrous in a city where flow plays such an important role. In that sense, the chase summarises the film, as Bourne cuts perpendicularly across traffic, intersects different layers of traffic, and extends the propulsion of traffic into casino and pedestrian spaces, bringing the chase to an abrupt halt as his vehicle – a police truck – plunges into the front of a gambling areas, scattering bodies, tables and slot machines indiscriminately in its wake.
In the final moments of the film, then, Bourne occupies this terrorist cusp as minutely as he can without being a terrorist himself, even though in the eyes of the casino occupants, there’s no meaningful difference between him and any other person who plunges a car into a crowd of people. All of a sudden, the car chase has crossed over into the lexicon of a terrorist attack, placing Bourne in exactly the same position in which the attacker on his father was placed. At the tail end of his flight from the present, Bourne ends up even more emphatically stuck in the present, only capable of remembering his father’s death by tapping into the logic of automotive terrorism that produced it, and undoing all the film’s flashbacks in the process. More pervasively, perhaps, this final chase divests Bourne of all residual pastness and subjectivity as well, with the result that his final meeting with Heather Lee is oddly anticlimactic, as is the film’s final twist – that Bourne was secretly taping Lee during a critical meeting – since this kind of surveillance has been part of the film’s world from the very outset, and would probably be more remarkable or unusual if it didn’t occur.
Even if there is another film, then, this conclusion feels like the end of the Bourne franchise, and an exhaustion of everything that Bourne himself once represented. It’s quite surreal to go back and watch even the trailer for The Bourne Identity, since you realise, immediately, that the anonymous Bourne was far more of a character than the awakened Bourne searching for his character – not because Bourne has somehow “lost” his character, but because the possibilities for representing Bourne within the technosphere that produced him has changed so much over the intervening decades. In fact, it’s questionable whether the Bourne of Jason Bourne even ties up with the character created by Ludlum, who died in the same year that the first film was released, or whether this Bourne could even be novelized or represented in literary form at all any more. Less a character than the limit and devolution of the very idea of character, Jason Bourne has never been more atomized, abstracted and alienated than he is here, and never will be again, even in the unlikely event that the franchise is able or willing to sustain his trajectories across another two decades.
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