A Bourne Rumination
On the Last of the Trilogy
Sunday, January 13, 2008 3:52 pm
Beware! Spoilers follow.
I can watch the first two Bourne movies repeatedly and still enjoy them. They really do succeed. In general I am annoyed that they, like too much out of Hollywood, find the greatest criminality among American spies; but hey, they are exciting and they aren't cartoons. Having heard that The Bourne Ultimatum was even more anti-American, I wasn't so sure I wanted to bother with it; yet I had also heard it was very good, and so I got it.
Yes, yes, one could argue that it's not anti-American as such but only anti-CIA; but, in the end, it is Americans who are the bad guys, so it's a bit sour. It also spins its wheels a bit, as far as the action goes; the variations on a theme were sometimes not so variant. Still, I really liked it — and unlike, say, Spider-Man 3, it doesn't crater and ruin its trilogy, but finishes things very well.
Now, two observations.
First: The black-ops program of which Bourne is a part has the power to kill enemies of America without any red tape or real oversight. The movie is particularly outraged that even U.S. citizens have been terminated. Now, I am one who draws a distinction between citizen and non-citizen. It does make a difference whether the target of a black-ops assassination is a citizen or not. But I find it interesting that a Hollywood movie should try to raise our outrage by dealing in a distinction that, in most other contexts, it would sneer at. Asserting that we should especially not kill U.S. citizens is asserting that there is something special about U.S. citizens. A "citizen," in other words, is a real category, with real rights above the rights of non-citizens. How wonderfully true! Yet The Bourne Ultimatum is essentially championing nationalism, even — if you want to be crude — tribalism. Are we finally allowed, dear Hollywood, to favor our own people over others?
Second: The Bourne trilogy is, action aside, about Bourne's journey towards his origins as an assassin; more to the point, towards knowledge of his true identity. And here the movie does something that I so hope I am not misinterpreting.
In all three movies, we have been led to think that Bourne was programmed to be a killer, brainwashed simply; and the final movie emphasizes this idea, showing flashbacks of Bourne being broken down so that his old identity would be lost. Yet his true origin as an assassin comes in a single moment. He is calmly sitting in a room with the man in charge, who is essentially saying to him: "Now's the time; you can leave or stay;" and Bourne is hesitating, perhaps agonizing; and then Bourne stands up and shoots and kills a hooded prisoner, about whom Bourne knows nothing. That is when he becomes an assassin: When he chooses to kill.
In other words, he can't escape responsibility by saying he was brainwashed or tortured. He made the choice. It wasn't the evil CIA that corrupted him; it was he himself. Bourne misused his free will. And of course, in the present day, he chooses not to kill; notably he does not "take the shot" when he has another assassin in his sights. Bourne doesn't overcome the nasty CIA; he rejects the choice he made in the beginning, and restores himself. He has repented. Is it an accident that, in a movie indifferent to explicit religion, Bourne is identified (via his old dog tags) as Catholic? Is this a clue? Am I encouraged to give a Catholic interpretation to Bourne's original sin? Encouraged or not, I do; and it is a very satisfying resolution of the trilogy.