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The Bourne Ultimatum – a very contemporary spy movie. August 25, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Art, Culture, Film and Television, The War On Terror.

Interesting stuff the contemporary spy movie. Ever since Paul Greengrass got his hands on the first of the Bourne franchise he’s been able to work a certain magic upon what was a rapidly atrophying genre. So much so that we can now forego the nonsense of the last of the Brosnan Bond franchise which saw invisible cars skidding around ice sheets. Two cheers for that at least.

Whether Casino Royale was quite the reinvention some have suggested is a different matter. Good, I thought, but also peculiarly ropy in places, particularly in the final set piece set in Venice where one just knows that the pressure from industry execs to get one big showy finale overcame the more restrained elements that had preceded it.

And perhaps an extra cheer for the current Bourne film which I saw yesterday. There’s lots to admire, even quite a bit to like. The pacing is excellent. Grainy shaky camera work with little or nothing of the glossy high finish and CGI that has come to represent the average Hollywood product. In fact the visual style is not entirely dissimilar to that series of early 1970s thrillers typified by Three Days of the Condor and The Parallax View. Cars crash, colours collide, disaster movie stuff. Again and again and again. From set piece to set piece. First we have a cat and mouse game in Waterloo train station in London between Matt Damon, a Guardian journalist he is trying to assist and a CIA backed assassin. Then there is Madrid. Then there is Tangiers. Then New York. And travel in this series is low level. There is little of the exotica and excitement that characterised the early Bonds, where it was possible for the audience to live somewhat vicariously through the lead… in Bermuda, or the wealthy resorts on the south coast of France. Bourne uses ferries, trains and suchlike, to the point one wonders about just how low impact is his carbon footprint. The locations are the underground car parks and service corridors that one sees bizarrely in the West Wing when the President is decanted from a limousine in the access ways leading to restaurants and suchlike.

But then, and this is the real strength of the film, this is juxtaposed with a contemporary communications and surveillance system that has a terrifying authenticity to it. Mobiles are tapped in real time. Offices bugged. Surveillance cameras co-opted to target individuals. Banks prevented from making payments and so on.

And Paul Greengrass uses the skills he developed as a documentary film maker well. At times the action unfolds like a sort of meta-lesson in just how security services operate, for good bad and exceedingly ugly. The film is littered with references to the war on terror. Hooded captives. Renditions. Termination of agents. Experiments in de-personalisation. And even the suggestion of deep cover assets used by the CIA who may not even know which side they work for.

Matt Damon, for slightly too long rather unwinningly youthful in the role suddenly – finally – begins to look his age, and none the worse for it.

One criticism is that women fare poorly in this series. That’s true to a point. The rather fantastic Franka Potente was killed off in the first five minutes of the second movie. Julia Stiles is fairly reserved in this movie. Yet Sarah Churchwell who wrote an argument about this in the Guardian recently neglects to mention the moral centre at the heart of the film in the form of Joan Allen as CIA boss Pamela Landy. It is her energy and autonomy that carries the plot forward throughout to the closing minutes [incidentally, and on a slight tangent, I caught five minutes of Wolf Creek last night on RTÉ 2. Now that’s misogynistic. I hope I never catch another five].

Another might be that the Guardian comes out both with reputation as fearless purveyor of truth enhanced but with its journalistic staff portrayed as idiots unable to keep their heads in a life-threatening situation.

But these issues don’t detract too much from the film. Indeed it is heartening to see that it retains at its core some of the humanism that characterised the original source, the thrillers written by Robert Ludlum. They were never great literature. But at the height of the cold war they were quite unusual in recognising both the cynicism of the links between east and west and the inherent humanity of those involved in such activities. And the original Bourne novels were explicit in blaming an intelligence complex that was largely out of control.

Greengrass presents a Bourne that resonates with contemporary issues. But in a way the issues are no different in real terms than they ever were. An interesting, instructive and entertaining film.


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