God's Politics

God's Politics

‘Bourne’ Again? /by Gareth Higgins/

I wrote here a few weeks ago about the new Die Hard film, and especially how I felt it represented a disturbing advance in the portrayal of heroes as violent men whose main purpose is to uphold materialism. Among other things, Bruce Willis’ character, John McClane, kicks a woman half to death, then drops an SUV on her head for good measure, and we’re supposed to applaud. Surprisingly enough, the comments on this blog were mostly critical of what I said – which is of course perfectly fine, given the freedom of discourse that exists on this site. But it was ironic to find that the very point I was making – that we have become inured to violence in the real world by its portrayal on screen – appeared to be borne out by many of the comments.

So it was with a sense of trepidation that I approached The Bourne Ultimatum, another film marketed as a violent revenge fantasy in which another American hero fights his way to freedom from the bottom up. I had enjoyed its predecessors, but not enough to be excited about this second sequel in the story of a CIA operative who is brainwashed into carrying out murder missions for his handlers, and who now wants his identity back.

On the surface, this is an exceptionally good action film – there are undeniably exciting sequences, filmed as if the camera was attached to Matt Damon’s belt. The plot rattles along at a heckuva pace, and the story centers on a thoughtful question: what happens to people who realise that the secrets they keep for the sake of someone else’s idea of “national security” are not worth the price of their soul?

The central character is obviously not a typical action hero. He has doubts about the meaning of what he has done for president and country; he has loved and lost; he fears that he has passed the point of redemption. Also, unlike the John McClanes of this world, he fights because he hasto, not just because the director sees yet another opportunity to titillate the audience’s desire to see metal things being blown up. Jason Bourne comes to a self-understanding in this film that there are some things not worth doing even for the sake of your country. He is horrified by his past; he wants his identity back because he recognises it’s the most important thing – perhaps the only realthing – he has. The philosopher Simone Weil once wrote that the most important possession we have is the ability to say ‘I’ – to take responsibility for acting in the world. In this, she echoed Rudyard Kipling’s adage that each of us “should strive for the privilege of owning one’s life.” The Bourne Ultimatum provocatively reminds us that an uncritical approach to, for instance, defense, or economics, or prison, or immigration policy involves ceding ownership of one’s life to “the authorities”; doing it “just because they say so.” All too often, refusing to ask questions about the status quo only serves to keep injustice in its perfect equilibirum. Unthinking patriotism or ideology of the kind that allows secret sins – whether of deceit, or conspiracy, or killing – to be carried out in our name because “the country” depends on it meets its match in Jason Bourne.

The Bourne Ultimatum is directed by Paul Greengrass, the British film-maker responsible for last year’s recreation of what may have happened on United 93. That film was a stirring and moving reminder of the horror of 9/11, but it managed to take a sober enough view that it tended to inspire mourning rather than feelings of vengeance. Greengrass’ intelligent treatment of violence continues at the climax of The Bourne Ultimatum, when the protagonist looks into the eyes of a would-be assassin and asks, “Do you even know why you’re supposed to kill me?” Even though this film still derives much of its entertainment value from violent action sequences, it is at least honest enough to affirm the fact that those who live by the sword still have a pretty good chance of dying by it. It underlines Edmund Burke’s statement about the only thing necessary for evil to triumph is that good people do nothing. I’m glad that in a summer beset by exploding robots, women with machine guns for legs, and Bruce Willis killing people with cars for our pleasure, at least one action film is attempting to tell the truth about violence. To Bourne’s final question I would add, “Do we even know why we are entertained by men and women killing each other?”

Gareth Higgins is a Christian writer and activist in Belfast, Northern Ireland. For the past decade he was the founder/director of the zero28 project, an initiative addressing questions of peace, justice, and culture. He is the author of the insightful How Movies Helped Save My Soul and blogs at

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posted August 23, 2007 at 5:17 pm

hear, hear! as someone who agrees with you on the thoughts you’ve posted about the myth of redemptive violence in the past, i usually can’t stomach action blockbusters. and while i still can’t watch the “fantastically choreographed” (or so i hear) fight scenes in the bourne films, i find the moral reawakening, questioning, criticism of what’s assumed and desire to take ownership and responsibility of one’s life in the films (as you have also mentioned) very moving and thought-provoking. for that, ultimatum was one of my mainstream film favorites of the summer. thank you for your words, gareth! all the best…

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Nancy Roca

posted August 23, 2007 at 7:59 pm

Thank you thank you for the thoughtful review. I’d had no plans to send for this movie, but I will now. I am appalled when I venture beyond PBS at the gross and violent ads for movies. Perhaps this might stir a bit of “self” in a few who see action movies so uncritically.

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posted August 23, 2007 at 9:23 pm

that we have become inured to violence in the real world by its portrayal on screen
Correction: we have become inured to images of violence happening in the real world by seeing images of imitation violence, both of them mainly on screen. In a world leaning heavily towards the ‘virtual’, it’s easy to forget or dismiss this distinction, but it matters. Most middle-class North American civilians see very little violence ‘in the real world’ i.e. in person. I suspect that being in the physical presence of violence would elicit a stronger reaction from even the most jaded viewer of screen violence-at-a-distance.

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posted August 23, 2007 at 11:46 pm

By this line of reasoning, The Lord of the Rings glorified violence, because Aragorn, Gandalf, and co. dispatched large numbers of orcs without once pondering the pointlessness of war.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 5:19 am

I’m reminded of an installment of the 80’s cartoon strip Bloom County that had three of the characters watching TV. The TV images were obviously extremely violent- explosions, gunfire, screams. they say (to the best of my memory)
Character 1: Hey, this is cool! Is this that new war movie?
Char. 2: No it’s the evening news. It’s a report from Lebanon.
Char. 1: Aw, c’mon! this has gotta be a movie! Look at that cool guy on the tank!
Char. 2: No, it’s the news. Those are real grenades.
Char. 1: (Loud explosion on the TV) Wow! Did you see that?! That guy totally got blown apart! This is so cool!!! (pause)… Uh, I mean , if it’s fake…
To me, the problem with violent images (whether it’s in music movies, TV, or books) is that, by hearing or watching fake violence, we think that we understand real violence. We wtach Saving Private Ryan and think we know what D Day was like. We listen to rap and think we know what it’s like to grow up in a ghetto.
This is the same on the righ and the left. I find it nauseating to hear Bill O’Reilly talk like he somehow knows what its like to be a combat soldier. People justify the violence of this group or that group, depending on their political opinion. But let’s face it: most of our information is second-hand. We simply don’t know what it’s like to kill someone or watch someone be killed.
I’ve loved the Bourne movies for the same reason as Gareth laid out: there is finally a character who is trying to step back from the edge he’s been forced to live on by nature of his training and profession. He wants to think for himself, to question, to embrace complexity. The Pamela Landy Character is in a similar place.
I think the message of the Bourne movies is stop, wait, think, don’t “just do it”.
It’s an important message for this time.

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kevin s.

posted August 24, 2007 at 11:55 am

I had feelings of vengeance after watching United 93, but I took solace in the fact that the lives of those heroes (who, btw, were heroes by virtue of taking action) will be avenged by a very powerful God.
That is a normal and, I think, healthy response to that film. The Bourne series (and I have not seen the third installment) is a little more conflicted in terms of its morality. However, I am not sure why we ought not view violent images, or hope that heroes (violent or no) should succeed in movies.
God has a violent streak in him, and that is imparted to man. That does no mean we emulate our “heroes” by taking innocent lives, but I don’t see any scriptural support for the idea that we must question a heroes use of violence at every turn.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 12:12 pm

Good article. I have also been struck by Jason Bourne’s aversion to what his former life represented. I appreciate that he is a “thinking man’s” hero. He questions what he does and why he does it. He recognizes a moral line and doesn’t cross it. Here’s hoping that this isn’t the last Bourne film.
p.s. It is also interesting how water is used in this series of films.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 12:41 pm

Thank you for the very thoughtful review. It held up a mirror for me so I can see that I have become one of the people you talk about – I have become inured to violence by watching shows like 24, Heroes, and movies like 300. I’ve cheered for the “good guys” w/o thinking. Gasp. I’ve usually been good at critically looking and asking questions about these things, but it gets tiring and lonely sometimes to continually question. But yet it’s necessary so that we don’t fall complacent in our pursuit of truth in all aspects of our lives and our world.

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posted August 24, 2007 at 9:19 pm

God has a violent streak and imparted it to man? Preposterous. Obviously we worship different Gods- thankfully so.

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kevin s.

posted August 25, 2007 at 12:11 am

“God has a violent streak and imparted it to man? Preposterous. ”
Not at all. The first point seems almost beyond dispute for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. The latter, then, ought not be surprising. Why do we cheer for the “good guys” without thinking? Sin? I don’t think so.
“Obviously we worship different Gods- thankfully so.”

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posted August 25, 2007 at 1:27 pm

“The first point seems almost beyond dispute for anyone who takes the Bible seriously. ”
Well, I do. And it seems to me that violence only came about after the original sin. God did not see Cain’s violence as a good thing. Were it not for sin, there would be no violence.

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Mick Sheldon

posted August 25, 2007 at 3:52 pm

We have become desentized to violence . Seems Movies and Hollywood get too much credit in my opinion for promoting movies like this as an example of what is wrong with our society .
The blog before people were critical of a popular book because of the violence and themes not related to their beliefs . Take a crack at the USA and misplaced patriotism , add much violence, bingo , then its a good movie ?

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kevin s.

posted August 25, 2007 at 11:16 pm

“Well, I do. And it seems to me that violence only came about after the original sin. ”
Not an unreasonable point, but what about the Lucifer’s rebellion against God? It would seem God reacted strongly to that.
“God did not see Cain’s violence as a good thing.”
That is because he committed murder. Not all violence is murder. Take a boxing match, for example. Of course, there are all manner of shades in between, but I cannot bring myself to deny that men are drawn to violence. I don’t think we get anywhere by pretending this is not so.

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posted August 27, 2007 at 9:31 am

“but I cannot bring myself to deny that men are drawn to violence. ”
the question being whether that is a godly impulse or part of the sin package we received at the fall…

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kevin s.

posted August 27, 2007 at 11:43 am

“the question being whether that is a godly impulse or part of the sin package we received at the fall…”
I could be unfair and point to evolutionary processes, but given what I believe, you have raised a reasonable point of discussion.
Perhaps violence is not precisely the correct term for the attraction. Certainly, men are not drawn to depictions of genocide or rape…
Moreso, men have a compulsion to conquer evil, to save the day, and to vanquish enemies. This element of a man’s character is noble, and I do not have a problem seeing it depicted on screen.

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John L.

posted August 27, 2007 at 12:03 pm

“By this line of reasoning, The Lord of the Rings glorified violence, because Aragorn, Gandalf, and co. dispatched large numbers of orcs without once pondering the pointlessness of war.”
Yes, it did. Glorifying violence by “the good guys” is nothing new, unfortunately, but it is still misguided. I always come back to Jesus telling Peter to put his sword away when the soldiers came to arrest him. If ever violence could be justified, wouldn’t it be in defending the Messiah?
To get a clearer picture of the violence in any movie, start watching somewhere around 2/3rds of the way through, without the moviemaker’s set-up and emotional manipulation of you first. I recently (re)saw the movie “Air Force One” this way. As the plot swung back and forth between victories for the “bad guys” and “good guys”, I was struck this time by the disturbing similarity between the cheering of both sides at the machine-gunning of the other. At the end, the heroic President (Harrison Ford) is saved, but in the euphoria of “victory,” the moviemakers said nothing about the unresolved political conflicts that supposedly were behind the string of events. The seductiveness of violence it seems, can easily lead well-intentioned people to do evil. This is far too rarely addressed in movies, TV, or novels.

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kevin s.

posted August 27, 2007 at 12:35 pm

” If ever violence could be justified, wouldn’t it be in defending the Messiah?”
Not if God’s will was for him to die for our sins, which it was. Why did Peter have the sword in the first place?
What do you feel about our police force?

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