Jason Bourne: a ‘John Rambo for liberals’

Plain, nameless and seriously confused about his identity: Jason Bourne captures the cultural zeitgeist far better than Daniel Craig’s pomo Bond.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Culture

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At the very start of The Bourne Ultimatum, Paul Greengrass’s brilliant ‘threequel’ in the series of films about a former CIA hitman out to discover the truth about his old employers, our hero Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) comes face to face with a Russian cop. ‘Please don’t shoot me’, the Ruskie begs. And Bourne doesn’t. He lowers his gun, tells the Russian ‘my argument is not with you’, and then flees into the black Muscovite night as the opening credits roll.

It’s about as far away from James Bond as you can get. In a staple Bond movie of the Seventies and Eighties, the Russian would usually have been evil rather than sympathetic. His clunking accent would have denoted his robotic, communistic inhumanity, and he would likely have sported a tall furry hat and an equally furry handlebar moustache. After a two-minute tussle involving the use of lampshades and Parker pens as weapons, Bond would have defeated said Russian, and the popcorn-munching audience would have breathed a sigh of relief.

But Bourne is not Bond; he’s the Antibond.

‘My argument is not with you.’ His first words in The Bourne Ultimatum convey a clear message: the Cold War is over. This is not American action hero versus evil Russians; it is American action hero versus America itself. Bourne’s argument is with the CIA, his former employer. Over three action-packed, border-crossing films, Bourne’s self-made mission has been to discover the truth about his real identity. Who is Jason Bourne? Is it his real name? Who brainwashed him into becoming a CIA automaton-assassin – a perfect emotionless killing machine – and why did they dump him in the sea riddled with bullets after they were done with him (the opening scene in the first film)?

In The Bourne Ultimatum, as in the first two instalments, the only bad guys are CIA operatives. They think little of bugging phones, using spycams to track troublesome elements, shooting uppity journalists, and blowing up CIA men gone wrong in the teeming streets of foreign cities. As Cosmo Landesman says in The Sunday Times, Bourne is ‘the perfect liberal hero’. He allows ‘liberals to enjoy all the forbidden pleasures of the espionage blockbuster: they can see him kick ass, break necks, smash faces and shoot fellow human beings, and not complain about civil liberties because the victims work for the CIA’. Bourne is, says Landesman, ‘the John Rambo of the liberal intelligentsia’ (1).

Indeed, in the new movie he even reads the Guardian. Seriously. The story revolves around a Guardian journalist’s exposé of CIA dirty dealings. Bourne and the journalist even take part in a tense chase scene through Waterloo station (they’ll love that at Farringdon Road). Forget the Times-reading, super-suave Bond, or the knowingly blank and anti-erudite types played by Arnold Schwarzenegger: Bourne is literally a Guardian-reading action hero, who probably racks his brains over the Guardian crossword and writes to Notes and Queries in between shooting CIA operatives and snapping the necks of those who have been sent to assassinate him.

One reviewer says Bourne is a ‘post-Cold War hero’ (2). And the Bourne films do indeed capture something striking about the post-Cold War era. Where Bond and other earlier spy heroes took on the Evil Empire or dodgy towelheads – and picked off a wicked cast of characters in the process, from sexy French assassins to Chinese secret agents – Bourne’s enemy is within: both within himself (who am I?) and within America (the CIA beast). Bond was cocksure and always on a mission against some sinister foreigner or crazed individual; Bourne is suffering from a severe crisis of personal identity. Where Bond personified the coherent outlook of the West in the Seventies and Eighties, Bourne captures the identity crisis of the West today. He’s all at sea. Literally. The first film, The Bourne Identity, opened with an injured Bourne floating in the sea; the new film ends with Bourne, injured again, in dark, murky waters.

The internal nature of Bourne’s struggle is clear from the film’s treatment of foreign cities. In Bond movies, there was always some symbol of exoticness to show that the action had moved to a different country: if you saw a woman in a red dress playing roulette, you knew the film had shifted to France; if you heard strange music and saw sheets of dust blowing through a yellow-brown street, you knew Bond had arrived in the mysterious Middle East. But in The Bourne Ultimatum, every city looks the same: New York bleeds into Paris, which bleeds into Madrid, Turin, Tangiers. Greengrass shows each city from high above, so that we see its spider-web lines of streets and only the top of its buildings, as if to denude it of its cultural identity.

Here, Greengrass captures the decline of clear or clashing national interests in the post-Cold War period. It is not national differences or arguments that matter in the Bourne films; Bourne is not chasing any external enemy in a red dress or a black bowler hat. Rather, each city is only a backdrop to his own intensely personal struggle for self-discovery. He is an Action Hero Sans Frontières who flits between countries in search of personal truth. Where Bond’s travels around the world were in pursuit of the national interest (and, of course, some sex and fun along the way), Bourne’s are in pursuit of a Dr Phil-style revelation of personality and esteem.

Bourne is a ‘humanitarian’ action hero. His character captures the shift from foreign ventures designed to boost the authority of the West to international escapades designed to flatter the egos of crisis-ridden Westerners. This make his new connection with the Guardian – a newspaper that loudly supported the West’s ‘generational missions’ of self-discovery in Bosnia and Kosovo – quite apt, as it happens.

Bourne is the perfect hero (or should that be anti-hero, even non-hero?) for our confused times. He doesn’t even know his own name. Bond’s most famous line was ‘The name’s Bond, James Bond’, a crystal clear declaration of personhood by a man eternally on a mission; Bourne is unsure what his real name is, and he’s desperately keen to shake off the ‘Jason Bourne’ moniker that was imposed upon him by a faceless CIA operative. This former spy driving, motorbiking and fighting his way around the world doesn’t know who he is or where he comes from, and he’s mightily upset by flashback memories about what he did in the past – and all of this makes him a far better representative of the cultural and political zeitgeist than Daniel Craig’s pomo Bond. Matt Damon is the perfect actor to play such a character. He’s good-looking but not dazzlingly handsome, and he permanently wears a blank expression. If Bond’s effortless charm and super-coolness was meant to reflect that Brits are the best in the world at foreign diplomacy, and Schwarzenegger’s ridiculous muscles were supposed to symbolise America’s brute strength in the face of weasely foreign enemies, then Damon/Bourne’s namelessness and plainness capture a culture that doesn’t really know what it stands for.

Who knew that an identity crisis could be so thrilling? Greengrass has directed an action movie that is the match of any of the classics of the genre from the 1980s. The chases, punch-ups and explosions, all filmed in Greengrass’s frenetic shaky-camera style, are relentless, and they’re likely to leave you feeling elated, possibly even a little bit cinema-sick. Bond’s attempts to demolish evil business empires or wicked foreign plots were never quite as scintillating as Bourne’s brand of therapy-by-guns.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here.

(1) He gives us a run for our money, The Sunday Times, 19 August 2007

(2) Jason Bourne brings back the spy film, InsideVandy, April 2007

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