The Sharp End of the Stick
Editor’s note: Minor plot spoiler in last two paragraphs.
Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) begins again. When The Bourne Ultimatum opens in mid-chase scene, the ever stressed Bourne is eluding CIA agents on a moving train en route to Moscow. He leaps to the ground and makes his way to a hospital, where he grabs an emergency kit and finds a sink where can wash and treat his own bloody injuries—again. Within seconds, he’s tangling with Russian officers: he takes out the first and considers the second, pleading for his life. Bourne lowers his weapon. “My argument,” he says, “is not with you.”
In this third film based on Robert Ludlum’s novels, the terms of Bourne’s argument turn exceedingly clear: he’s set against the U.S. program that produced him and now wants to eliminate him. The onetime asset has become a self-aware mistake. “Something happened to me,” Bourne says, “And I need to know what it is.” In a mash-up of Robocop and Manchurian Candidate, he seeks not only his identity, but also the individuals responsible for his extraordinary altered state. The state has its upside: trained to kill and survive, he repeatedly rises from crashes and explosions, bloodied and lurching, then pushing forward to full speed, on to the next unbelievable stunt.
Bourne’s unkillability is a function of his amnesia (he has nothing to lose, only his mission to fulfill). But it’s also thematic. He’s the logical product of the secret CIA program that made him, the dark routes by which a desire for surveillance and security gives way to brutal dominion and extreme measures. “Decisions made in real time,” explains CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), “are never perfect.” And so, in “real time,” Vosen terms his quest for Bourne a matter of national security, covering over its imperfections, the incidental corpses and errors in judgment.
Bourne makes such mistakes manifest, because he embodies them and because he’s determined to “right” them to the extent he can (he’s found, in Bourne Supremacy, that apologizing to targets’ relatives is not especially productive). It’s ironic and typical that Bourne, so damaged and pragmatic, remains idealistic. And he’s entertainingly fierce about it, if not precisely vengeful. (To maintain his sympathetic mien, he leaves the overt payback to others, with his violent retributions framed as excitingly edited bouts of self-defense.) Bourne’s journey spans continents (from Torino, Paris, and London, to Tangier and Manhattan, each picturesque location yielding a piece of his puzzle) and times. At first his flashbacks are odious and cryptic (“Will you commit to this program?” barks a shadowy interrogator), but they’re increasingly legible, leading to the moment when he re-sees his first, terrible kill.
Bourne’s perspective shapes particular scenes in the present as well. He finds clues to himself in a London Guardian article by “security correspondent” Ross (Paddy Considine). Their meeting at Waterloo Station becomes an elegant, exhilarating cat-and-mouse exercise, reminiscent of the mall scene in Minority Report: Bourne leads Ross—using a comparatively low-tech prepaid cell phone—through Vosen’s intricate surveillance network, Ross responding to Bourne’s perfect, in-the-moment calculations. Sharply edited to show close calls and Bourne’s flabbergasting ingenuity (“What the hell just happened?” exclaims Vosen more than once), the sequence is all about Bourne’s training, anticipating, and intuiting, besting the CIA at its own game.
Even as Bourne sees so ultra-accurately, the film complicates the very concept of perspective. “Funny how different things look,” says Vosen, “depending on where you sit.” Skeptical CIA specialist Pam Landy (Joan Allen) sees such language as self-serving and self-deceiving. Like CIA undercover Nicky (Julia Stiles), she once hunted Bourne and now seeks to help him. Their changed perspective becomes yours, admiring Bourne’s brilliance but also appalled by his ferocity. The difficulty of this doubleness is visible in another setpiece (this one in Tangier), where Vosen sets an asset after Bourne and Nicky. The sequence is multiply layered, with Bourne eluding cops across rooftops and Desh (Joey Ansah) chasing Nicky through close apartments and alleys below. Bourne and Desh’s inevitable throwdown is all visceral slam-bangs and smash-cuts, punctuated only by ambient grunting and thumping, no music to prettify the action. Watching the mayhem, Nicky’s stunned face mirrors yours. If Bourne’s pitiless antics are entertaining, they’re also often dreadful.
But if Bourne is a stone-cold killer, he’s also a victim. Sort of. Ultimatum develops this perversity in order to make its political case. If Paul Greengrass’ previous film, United 93, indicts U.S. official unpreparedness (at least when it isn’t underscoring the necessarily fictionalized heroism of passengers and crew), this one indicts U.S. official self-regard—fictionalized in another way. In “the beginning,” Vosen says, the Bourne-making program was a “neat surveillance program,” now its the “umbrella” for all kinds of dastardly and utterly necessary black ops. “We are the sharp end of the stick now,” Vosen says proudly, “That’s what makes us special. No more red tape… We need these programs now.”
Too bad if, as Landy protests, “This isn’t what I signed up for, this isn’t us.” Such Dick Cheney-ish rationales reverberate throughout Ultimatum. Bourne imagines himself antithetically, too self-knowing and really, too guilty, to indulge in the red-tapeless process. But his quest inevitably leads him to see himself again. His flashbacks reveal not only his torture by trainers (hoods and waterboarding alluding to much-documented U.S. tactics), but also his commitment, after all. Though he seeks the others who made him, he sees at last, as a trainer puts it, “You made yourself into who you are. You came to us, you volunteered. You said you’d do whatever it takes to save American lives.”
It’s a devastating revelation, undermining the very idea of Bourne’s decision to “volunteer.” His commitment to “the program” is, you’ve known all along, based on lies. When he finally finds himself, he sees he must determine his own motivations, not believe in someone else’s.