The Bourne Analysis

by Leon Saunders Calvert Volume 14, Issue 6 / June 2010 9 minutes (2007 words)

The release of The Bourne Ultimatum in 2007 saw the completion of “the most exciting thriller series ever to come out of Hollywood” [1] set a new standard for intelligent action cinema. The differentiating factor lies in the film’s ideological content as much as its obvious technical proficiency.

Action films tend to offer appeal to a particular demographic which is primarily male (particularly young men). These genre movies typically act as a vessel for tapping into omnipotence fantasies, allowing identification with a hero who is impossibly industrious, who has a level of physical capability with which he is able tangibly to manifest dominance over his environment and adversaries. However, enjoyment of these films is almost always spoilt by the inevitable glorification and aesthetizisation of violence and guns, the degrading representation of women, the insistence on having the hero deliver smart ass remarks and one-liners, and the rest of the political and ideological staples which have come to define the genre. In contradiction to this the Bourne series represents something akin to the ‘liberal’ action film. Something I might have considered a contradiction in terms prior to its arrival.

To caveat the above, let us concede the following: The film is still pure fantasy fulfilment. The audience is encouraged to identify with a man who is impossibly resourceful (physically, mentally, intellectually). The fact that the film is quite “realistic” only enhances the fantasy rather than undermines it. Furthermore we get to identify with these superhuman traits without having to see or identify with the obvious difficulties in how they were attained (although Ultimatum does go some way to rectifying this). From the moment that Bourne is discovered in the Mediterranean in Identity we get to wake up with him, share in his amnesia and discovery of superhuman skills without burdening ourselves with the years of training it would take to reach this kind of physical and mental evolution, reminiscent of The Matrix in its non-exertion in acquiring martial arts skills.

The film does not subvert elements of certain genre expectation that would make it truly progressive; to quote Richard Dyer writing about Speed, “it does contribute to the reproduction of a masculine structure of feeling… to do with freedom of movement, confidence in the body, engagement with the material world, that is coded as male (and straight and white, too) but to which all humans need access.” [2]

However, the films are an attempt to marry an independent style of filmmaking with blockbuster budgets and their expected returns, so let us look at what works:

Attempted seriousness

One of the staples of American action cinema is for the hero to be smart-assed and make quips constantly to demonstrate his coolness. The Bourne films have consciously gone against this relatively ridiculous cultural norm. Furthermore, although the action is utterly thrilling in all three films the audience is also encouraged to understand the consequences of violence in the films and the body count is incredibly low when compared with similar competing movies. There is always a very real come down after the buzz of the action in which we are found (and ‘outted’) as complicit in identifying with the attraction of violence. The fight in the apartment in Tangiers is breath-taking action cinema which ends with a very realistic and disturbing death and the scene with follows it sees a guilty Bourne in a small way atoning for yet another “crime” which he cannot undo, the physical consequences of the assassin’s death manifest in the bloodied and bruised hands of our ‘hero’.

The representation of intelligence as a virtue

Interestingly Matt Damon’s most successful and memorable roles almost always see his character as someone who is incredibly gifted, specifically in terms of intelligence, but whose identity is problematized (Good Will Hunting, Talented Mr. Ripley, Gerry, Bourne, The Departed). Much like Good Will Hunting, the Bourne films in some small way, fight back against the prevalent anti-intellectual streak in most of western pop-culture. His characters’ intelligence is always portrayed in a positive light, as something we should want to identify with, rather than revolt against.


So it is not Chekhov but equally the Bourne films are representative of the philosophical and psychological problem of identity. What is it to be me? What represents me? The post-amnesia Bourne cannot reconcile himself with the pre-amnesia Bourne morally. Ultimatum addresses this responsibility for defining one’s (moral) identity even more than the previous films by having Jason Bourne realise that he chose to become Bourne. He cannot simply lay responsibility for this moral corruption on others.

The representation of women

Although there are no female characters in the Bourne trilogy who can kick ass like Bourne, unquestionably the women are the film’s moral guardians. Starting with Franka Potente’s Marie in the first one and then with Pamela Landy and Nicky Parsons in number three being the only people on the inside to help Bourne, the women come off much better than the men, who are largely represented as morally unquestioning, greedy or too testosterone charged to make humane decisions. Although many characters are somewhat stereotyped in this manner (the typical government bad guys sitting behind their desks are one step short from being cardboard cut-outs), it makes for an appealing reversal of female representation which is almost always ludicrously negative and unempowered (they are usually there to look good and be saved) in this genre.

Political relevance

The Bourne films, particularly Ultimatum, are almost a contradiction in terms when compared with the typical output within the genre – they are liberal action films, both explicitly and implicitly. Doug Liman, who directed the first and whose father was chief counsel for the senate in the Iran Contra Affair which Liman consciously draws on, openly attempted to address the treatment by American right wing governments of African and South American countries within the confines of the genre. Paul Greengrass directed Supremacy and Ultimatum. Greengrass is a left leaning British filmmaker and Cambridge graduate whose background is in political documentary filmmaking. Starting with the TV series, World In Action, he also ghost-wrote Spycatcher, the infamous biography on the memoirs of former MI-5 agent, Peter Wright. His only other films outside the Bourne series that have seen a wide release are Bloody Sunday, about the 1972 Derry massacre, United 93, about the ill-fated airplane on 9/11, and Green Zone, set in Iraq in the early days of post-invasion and the search for weapons of mass destruction. Whilst he explicitly stated that he tried to make a thrill-ride with The Bourne Ultimatum and did not want it to be an “issues” film, you can detect his political engagement all the way through his Bourne movies in his questioning of authority and the undermining of the conservative hawk policies that have been implemented since 9/11. For example, the storyline of The Bourne Ultimatum presents water boarding as an abhorrent act which leads to utter dehumanization. Contrast this with the weekly storylines in 24 which not only explicitly validate torture but actually argue that its use is nothing less than a burden of moral duty for the hero. Even the film’s locations are chosen with political relevance in mind. Much of the action in Supremacy is set in the cold war centers of espionage, Berlin and Moscow, while Ultimatum zips through London, Madrid and New York, the locations of each of the major terrorist attacks by fundamentalist Islam in the West in the last decade. The Bourne character himself represents a global cosmopolitan worldview with his ability to adapt to different cultures, blend into his surroundings wherever he is and speak many foreign languages. Compare this to the more glamorous, holiday resort locations of the equally globe-trotting Bond films. As Greengrass is quick to point out himself, Bond is established as an imperialist misogynist in comparison with Bourne. The Bourne series in many ways sits more comfortably alongside with great political thrillers of the 60s/70s (Bullitt, French Connection, The Parallax View, Three Days of the Condor). Indeed, right wing critics have condemned The Bourne Ultimatum as anti-American.3 It is not anti-American but it is anti neoconservative America.

Independent style

The handheld documentary style of filmmaking Greengrass employs in Ultimatum comes from his documentary background and approach. It seems to have split the critics with some saying it is just head-ache inducing, impossible to follow, representative of modern MTV style nonsense. I disagree. I think it is actually extremely effective. It lends the film a veracity and realism it would not otherwise have. Greengrass shows clear understanding of film grammar and form but purposefully undermines this too with surprising angles and cuts which keep the viewer in a constant state of agitation and attention, offering the sense of realism and excitement that the film aims for; to quote Manohla Dargis, “the formally bold Greengrass shatters movie space like glass.” [4] The hand held style also supports the sense of paranoia, with shots blocked by unfocused objects in the foreground, as if the footage is being taken on the sly. The fact that, as a viewer, you are thrown into the middle of fights simply helps demonstrate the violence of violence, not allowing the viewer an objective and safe view of it from the outside. Being on the inside of the fight makes Bourne’s efforts and reactions even more impressive. Further evidence of the independent style of filmmaking is that all the scenes are shot on location. Furthermore they did not shut down Waterloo Station or the streets in Tangiers or New York. They simply went there as a guerrilla style film unit and shot scenes in the locales as they found them. In my opinion the resulting feeling that is captured is that these scenes are actually unfolding in front of you rather than having been set up for a camera and the effect is utterly compelling. The sense of tension and stress in the car chase at the end of Supremacy with Bourne required to operate at the absolute limits of his abilities, both intellectual and physical, at every conceivable second in order to continue his existence from one moment to the next, is an extreme and immediate representation of existential angst that creates a vivid sense of excitement.

The action genre is re-Bourne

The success of the Bourne franchise is demonstrated by the fact that the visual and stylistic template of the film’s now acts as the backbone of so many movies in the genre (the re-tooled James Bond franchise, Taken, Terminator Salvation to name a few) in much the same way as John Woo’s output and The Matrix had done a decade ago. However, the political and emotional maturity which equally defines the Bourne franchise has yet to be replicated successfully outside of the series and Bourne is yet to meet his match. As the makers consider whether to create a fourth installment it is difficult to see how they can pursue the story much further without re-treading the same ground they have so expertly covered.

I might argue that until now the moral character of Jason Bourne has been defined by what he is against, being forced into a state of constant self preservation against his former employers, rather than what he is willing to fight for. What does he believe in? What meaning will he create for himself now that he can be David Webb? The franchise establishes Bourne with an anti-neoconservative worldview. This was perhaps an important statement in the Bush era but this ‘threat’ can no longer be taken seriously as the most pressing issue of the moment and something more impressive is required from a left wing hero in the Obama world in order to remain important and relevant. Perhaps this is the opportunity that Greengrass and Damon can explore as we move into the next decade.


1 Sight and Sound, p50, October 2007.

2 Dyer, Richard, ‘Cinema has often provided the pleasures of the rollercoaster. What is different about recent action movies such as ‘Speed’?, Sight and Sound, October 1994

3 Right wing critics

4 Manohla Dargis

The Bourne Analysis

Leon Saunders Calvert works in a financial information media company in London. He has a BA Hons from the University of Essex in Philosophy and Literature, including film studies, and an MSc in International Management from the University of Reading. He believes that the study of philosophy and culture can be fundamental to providing us with a better understanding of the world we live in and the ways in which it can be improved, rather than undertaken as a kind of intellectual workout, as is so often the case. Leon has published reviews in Film International and The Film Journal.

Volume 14, Issue 6 / June 2010 Film Reviews   action film