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 www.godisnotelsewhere.blogspot.com