Monday, 6 September 2010

The Bourne Ultimatum

Jason Bourne is Justice: doubting, probing, fundamentally righteous, and indestructible.

He is believable as a quasi-superman because his action-man status is not decked with the cartoon baubles of comic relief. He stays within himself, not willing to puff himself up or to unnecessarily humiliate others. He's tormented by the memory of the men and women he killed yet the torment isn't thrust out into the film by the fingertips of grand gestures. His humanity is more affecting because it is personal, private and guarded.

The comedy - if we need any- comes from the little victories over those chasing him, the overturning of the established order, the irony of the C.I.A.'s most brutal weapon turning itself against them and their more inhuman instincts and practices. In the Die Hard films John McClane is a man who sometimes works outside of the law for the law, with childish glee and disbelief relishing his supremacy. In The Bourne Ultimatum Jason Bourne is a man returning the law to its roots, cleaning house, giving us the spectacle of authority razed down and then raised up again.* The emotional exhilaration comes from watching a man who is at long last healed in the process, from the culmination of a long journey rather than little therapeutic encounters with whimsy. He has a job to do. He is as serious as his predicament.

The Bourne Ultimatum is tense and it is exciting. Seeing as it is the third part of a six hour story, the whole film can be a third act chase. The chase itself exerts a great torque, a magnetic push and pull. He is coming to the chasers, pulled there by the truth, being pushed away by those who did him wrong. This isn't normal. They don't need to chase him. The battle lines are drawn and scrubbed out all over the world and all the while the arena, the crucible in down-town New York, is being prepared for the final assault.

The death of the reporter in Waterloo Station is extremely important in setting up the film's parameters. It tells us one thing - anyone who helps Bourne, and not only Bourne, can be killed. From then on C.I.A. insiders (not moles) Nicky and Pamela Landy really are, in our minds, putting their necks on the block by helping him. The tension and excitement becomes emotional, kinetic and irresistible, spiralling out of and then into control.

It is indeed an excellent film all the way to the conclusion, but not for all of the conclusion.

The last shot of Bourne twitching to life underwater (resonating with baptismal, cleansing imagery, water being prevalent throughout the trilogy) brings the series full circle in a satisfying and triumphant way. However, with Nicky's smile already greeting the news that he has not been found, it is redundant. The inclusion of this shot feels like trite symbolism and tidy narrative packaging, the desire for which can interfere with the strongest possible representation of the material. The finale would have been more satisfying without it.

Second-guessing a Director's motives is nigh-on impossible (and something I am loath to do) but those moments in film that feel most jarring are precisely the ones that bring their making and their makers most readily to mind. David Bordwell goes further (and probably too far) along this route of enquiry, reverse-engineering the concrete reality of the film to assume certain decisions, deficiencies and deceptions on the part of the film-makers.

I don't mind a shaky camera if I don't mind it. I do if I do. There is no rigid check-list of dos and don'ts. The reason why the film is filmed that way is of little concern to me. What concerns me is my experience not whether the Director is trying to hide weaknesses, as Bordwell says in his pieces on the film.

The style of the film is its substance. The action itself, seen in fragments, not in focus, is a marker, a mannequin on which to hang a sense of the action.  The restlessness of the camera (not even the credits stay still) intensifies the fragments we do catch, much like the low shutter speed, impressionistic abstract action in Ashes of Time enabled individual and fleeting poses and compositions to pop from the screen with iconic power.

 It works by creating a touch of frustration. The fact that shots are obscured by passers-by, zooming in and out or hyperactively jumping around makes us work to see what we need to see and fight through the morass of modern life and technology to get it. The whole C.I.A. technological apparatus (cameras, phone tapping etc.) is used to obscure the truth rather than to see it more clearly.

This associates us, in some small way, with Bourne's state of mind. The fidgety image works as the projection of Bourne's internal rush and panic to discover and process information. The swan's frantically beating feet are overlaid onto the relatively calm exterior. Bourne has to go from points A to B to C but his mind wishes it could go straight to Z.

The style could be said to derive from the story rather than feel like a misguided shortcut to inject 'realism' or 'energy', a point I think clear in that same joyful shot of Nicky smiling at the end. Most films would zoom in on her face in expectation of the smile. Here she begins to smile and then the camera reacts to her by zooming in closer. 

These are not excuses ('Oh, but he meant to do it that way') for the attacks levelled at the Director by some who found it difficult, if not nauseating. It is merely addressing the film itself and the effect it creates. Whether it is meant or not is by the by.

Having said all of this, once you get accustomed to the speed (two seconds per shot), letting it wash over you without concentrating or fighting too fiercely against it, it is easy to follow, giving you just enough information to build the geography of the places and chases.  

The Bourne Ultimatum makes you want to follow, makes you want Bourne to reach his truth...but not a moment too soon. All in all it is a very good film, maybe even among the highest rank of recent years.

*This is a man who is reborn, a man searched for for three days, a man whose sudden appearance on CCTV gets the following reaction: "Jesus Christ!"


  1. Stephen, this is a film and a series of films I've come to regard with more or less nothing but displeasure over time, but you make as compelling and convincing an argument as I've ever read for the aspects which turn me off to them, particularly Greengrass' adherance to self-consciously shaky-cam verite stylings paired with fairly rote action beats. The notion that Greengrass' camera is expressing the inner psychological turmoil of an amnesiac hero striving to reclaim the secrets of his past is an intriguing one, but I don't think the films really capitalize on that potential. Mainly, I think it's due to the unambitious imagination and choreography behind the films' various action-sequences-- the fights and chases aren't really all that interesting in and of themselves, and depend upon the unmotivated movement of Greengrass' camera to sustain any real import. It's far inferior to the work of old pros like Lucas, Spielberg or newer eyes like Martin Campbell and Kathryn Bigelow, all of whom can design action at great scale, scope and intricacy while at the same time shoot it with equal amounts clarity and impact. Perhaps if Greengrass showed as much creativity in the writing of his action-sequences as he did their coverage, the films might work a little better as cinematic representations of a disturbed mind. There's the possibility for a Kaufman-esque associative quality at times, but it's never followed through on. It makes me think of what John Boorman did with "Point Blank".

  2. Bob,

    I'm happy you see some merit in what I've written here about THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM even if you don't like the films.

    I know that this kind of aesthetic is considered 'verite' but really I see it as nothing of the sort. If the camera is meant to be acting as if in a live, spontaneous situation then it seems too knowing (where things are and where they will go) and if it is meant to act as if a P.O.V. then the shaky cam is far too shaky.

    To me it doesn't (necessarily) make the material more immediate either. The style isn't a con but the idea some have imposed on it that it is more 'realistic' perhaps is.

    It's hard to think whether it would have been better in Lucas or Spielberg's hands, though the bike chase in INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL is superb.

    I thought the fights and chases were interesting , though maybe not on a purely physical / choreographed level - more emotionally. The scene in the train station, though, is excellent on all levels.

    I don't remember POINT BLANK too well as I haven't seen any of it for quite a while.

  3. Stephen, I'm thinking of Greengrass' background of making docu-dramas in which all the shaky-cam really is meant to give a verite feeling-- "Bloody Sunday", "United 93" and "Green Zone" all employ the same handheld mis-en-scene, all the generate a supposedly more immersive feeling of cinematic realism.

    I actually think that Doug Liman's first film is probably the series' best. Perhaps if it were a little looser, it might've taken advantage of what you're seeing in Greengrass' vision. I like the idea of the shaky camera as projecting a subject's shaky psychological state, and while I don't think it's done as effectively as it could here, there's potential for movies in the future to get it right.

    The train-station scene is a great suspense sequence, but not an action one. They're different beasts, though certainly related.

    Was there a bike chase in "Crystal Skull"? I can't remember. There was one in "Last Crusade", certainly, the least of the Indy movies to my eyes (I'm a sucker for "Temple of Doom").

  4. "...generate a supposedly more immersive feeling of cinematic realism."

    More often than not it is a style that does nothing for me (or rather is a negative). I just think it worked for THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. Horses for courses, obviously.

    UNITED 93 made me feel uneasy and I didn't finish watching it. Just because something has drama to it, doesn't mean it should be dramatised. I really didn't see the point. I think people see film as helping to immortalise and/or eulogise events and people.

    "The train-station scene is a great suspense sequence, but not an action one. They're different beasts, though certainly related."

    Yes, I absolutely agree.

    "Was there a bike chase in "Crystal Skull"? I can't remember. There was one in "Last Crusade", certainly, the least of the Indy movies to my eyes (I'm a sucker for "Temple of Doom")."

    TEMPLE OF DOOM was my favourite when I was young. I haven't seen it since. I didn't much like THE LAST CRUSADE apart from the choice of the holy grail.

    There is indeed a bike chase in KOTCS, when Indiana and Mutt leave the bar to get away from the Russians. It's got great momentum and it is so remarkably easy to follow. Done with wit too.

  5. A propos TEMPLE OF DOOM, I suppose Shortround was about my age when I saw it, so it helped me associate better with the film.