If you ignore recent news and judge instead by recent movies, today’s CIA is doing all right. Gone are those days when the Company (or its metaphorical equivalent) was corrupt and inept by definition, inclined to fry expendable operatives’ brains, and in need of righteous resistance by Robert Redford or Warren Beatty. Now, in films like The Sum of All Fears or Bad Company, the Company, for all its bureaucracy and complexity, looks ethically upright and exceedingly efficient, bent on defending the grateful U.S. against terrorists and fighting for freedom all over the world.
But hold up. Just when you’re settling into a contented faith that international espionage and dangerous deeds are in good hands, here comes The Bourne Identity. Based on Robert Ludlum’s novel (the first of three featuring the character called Bourne) and directed by Doug Liman (whose previous films, Swingers and Go, could not seem less relevant as preparation for this film), this is one snarky spy picture. While it draws a dramatic line between good and bad guys, it locates both within the CIA, with the latter dedicated to black ops at all costs, and the former—one Jason Bourne (Matt Damon, by most anyone’s measure, a most unlikely action hero) discovering that he is one of those costs, one that his superiors quickly decide is expendable.
That is, the CIA here is an intensely low-down, sinister, and duplicitous organization, well used to covering its own ass and funded by a blissfully ignorant Congress. The Agency appears to function pretty much inside its own abstracted vacuum of an international theater, free of moral or monetary concerns, as suggested during a neat little coda showing a Congressional committee hearing, wherein the next plan, following the failed one involving Bourne, is rubber-stamped by lawmakers who don’t even think to question a tidy activities summary by CIA director Ward Abbott (Brian Cox). And this is the film’s point—the CIA answers to no one except through an elaborate network of lies designed to keep everyone, even most who work within its system, in a darkness of plausible deniability. And so the Agency becomes the site of overwhelming loss—of stakes and rights, context and meaning.
The primary loss here is the titular identity. Jason Bourne “goes rogue” when he suffers a traumatic memory loss during what should be a routine assassination. As the film begins, a fishing boat pulls a corpse-like Bourne out of the Mediterranean Sea; he is, as his name underlines, reborn in this instant. The ship’s doctor picks a few bullets out of his back and a strange capsule out of his hip, during which process Bourne regains consciousness and displays—much to his and the doctor’s surprise—extraordinary fighting skills. Once he calms down, the doctor helps him see that this capsule contains digitized info (oddly, easily readable to anyone who looks at it) concerning a safe deposit box in Zurich. He spends a couple of weeks helping around the ship: aside from being able to tie fancy knots despite being perplexed as to why he knows how to do so, he finds solace in that physical labor that always cleanses the soul in the movies. When his new buddies drop him off on land, he’s ready to start piecing together his past and, by extension, or so he thinks, his identity.
This is a complicated process. When he gets to Zurich and checks out the safe deposit box, he finds an assortment of passports and a big pile of money. Eventually, he figures out that he’s a super-black-ops agent who failed to take out his last target, an African leader spurned by the U.S., now threatening to expose the Agency’s dirty deeds, Nykwana Wombosi (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, best known as Oz‘s ruthless, much-missed Simon Adebisi). This makes Bourne a target himself. Embarrassed that he’s lost his man, project director Ted Conklin (Chris Cooper) “activates” all the other similar operatives and sets them on Bourne’s trail: “I want Bourne in a body-bag by sundown,” he growls. His designer-suited flunkies step to.
The CIA, of course, has all kinds of high tech surveillance technology at its disposal. Meanwhile, Bourne is only beginning to recall this detail, so he spends some time putting himself in serious harm’s way, revisiting his old Paris apartment or making himself visible on videotape at the U.S. Embassy. Such occasions serve the action imperative, however, as Bourne’s super-skills come back to him just in time to elude or completely decimate various pursuers, including a high-powered rifleman called The Professor (Clive Owen) and a computer expert named Nicki (Julia Stiles, mostly looking forlorn here).
Add to this big fat tension cocktail the generally fraught Marie (Franka Potente), whom Bourne convinces to give him a ride to Paris, by promising her a much-needed $20,000. Right. The plot must contort considerably to get and keep Marie within Bourne’s vicinity, partly because he “needs” a love interest, but more clearly because the film needs Potente: while it’s certainly too bad that she’s stuck here playing the implausibly acquiescent and occasionally hysterical “girlfriend,” she does bring a welcome warmth and semi-sanity to the proceedings. As they’re on the road to Paris, he hems and haws, then finally decides to fees up that he “can’t remember anything that happened before 2 weeks ago.” Marie doesn’t miss a beat: “Lucky you.”
Though her new chum’s inscrutability is initially seductive, Marie is increasingly (and reasonably) alarmed by his repeated demonstrations of brutality. Good that he saves their lives a few times, but bad that he’s so ruthless, and worse that he’s an assassin. She has principles, you know, at least until film’s end when she’ll have to capitulate and just be the damn girlfriend after all.
Such capitulation is par for a spy movie course, but The Bourne Identity is best when it exhibits a sly self-consciousness concerning just such conventions, narrative and stylistic. Not nearly so serious or smug as most spy movies, it affects and celebrates a kind of offbeatness that’s rare in the genre. Its plot is cockamamie, and by all rights, it shouldn’t work at all. But it is so free-fallingly bizarre, so in love with its own plot absurdities, violent bone-crunchings (see especially, the moment when way too crafty Bourne uses a corpse to break his leap off a stairwell), and aesthetic flourishes (fast-motion shots, fast-cut editing, spinning cameras), that after a while, you just go with it.
None of it makes much sense. In fact, what makes the most sense is Bourne/Damon’s own perpetual, slight smirk of surprise at himself and all that collapses in chaos around him. It may be that such self-awareness and especially, self-skepticism provide an especially apt model for thinking about the CIA right about now.