“It’s interesting that we assign the label ‘political’ to art that doesn’t just fit a mould of status quo. Is Downton Abbey not political? That’s political! Every piece of art offers a perspective on the world.”
“I remember. I remember everything.” To start his new film, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) speaks over a black screen, insisting on what can’t possibly be true. Even as he reminds you of his last film, this most famous amnesiac remains defined by his quest to know (what he did, what was done to him) and you know, even if he doesn’t, that he can’t embark on another adventure already remembering “everything”.
Thus, Jason Bourne begins by showing what Jason Bourne does remember and also what he does not. As before, he’s haunted by his own violent past, visible since 2002 in Doug Liman’s Bourne Identity, then revved up in Paul Greengrass’ Bourne Supremacy. The Bourne movie saga is built on his step-by-step recovery of self through bits of memory (happily, he appears unburdened by the last Bourne outing, the one that involved neither Damon nor Greengrass). Here again, he’s got some new bits, including flashbacks to the murder of his CIA agent dad (Gregg Henry), bits of smudgy, speedy, and repetitive chaos.
The repetition is key, for you more than for Bourne. His business is all about a kind of accelerated repeating: he always searches for information, he always eludes the CIA operatives who mean to kill him (while they pretend, as they put it, “to bring him in”), he always works with someone who doesn’t expect to do so, and he always engages in smash-bang, zippy-zappy action, cut into pieces of bodies and vehicles and architecture.
Such editing is, of course, a signature of the franchise, together with more typical spy-movie gimmickry, from globetrotting to electronic surveilling to car chasing. Here again, the cuts in fight scenes are thrilling but maybe indecipherable, making irrelevant any logic of time and space, in favor of a viewing experience you might call meta-visceral. Your body’s response to it is more a function of expectation than sense, rather like a self-driving video game.
Repetition creates your expectation. You know the plot, as much as it matters. This time, Bourne begins in a state of crisis, pursuing distraction in bare-knuckle fight-club-like fights in Greece (more precisely, he’s pretending to fight, until he gets bored and takes out any given opponent in a single punch). His journey back — or forward, it’s hard to tell and it hardly matters — begins again when someone from his past, in this case, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), discovers information about him (and his dad). As usual, surveillance tech is so insidious that they must meet in person to make the info exchange, and as usual, their efforts to hide themselves in a Greek street riot (a gambit that allows Greengrass to restage the climax of Bloody Sunday at a harrowingly high pitch) inevitably fail, allowing the CIA, and you, to hunt them down amid flailing bodies, fires, and assaults.
The hunt introduces the new players, who reprise the roles of old players. CIA Director Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) means to “put down” Bourne, sending after him similarly trained killers, assembled into utterly expendable Alpha and Bravo teams and one who works alone, the Asset (Vincent Cassel). For all their talk about business, Dewey and the Asset are all about personal stakes and vendettas, vague as these might be.
Again and again, their faces evoke their investments. It helps that both their faces are extraordinarily gnarled, eyes sunk into their skulls, skin hanging like ancient paper from their cheekbones. Their faces tell stories that are at once personal and political, perspectives on the world that are cynical and desperate to hang on to an old order that never existed.
The faces of the young new players tell other stories, but these stories are still repetitive. These kids’ faces are smooth and handsome. Reflected in monitors or glimpsed through windows, these faces indicate familiarity with today’s technologies, as purveyors of the power of cyber war and cyber control rather than the power of abject physical brutality. You know that Bourne will prove them all wrong, from Dewey to Aaron. The newbies are played by rising movie stars brought in to breathe life into the franchise. CIA agent Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) does a cursory search of Bourne’s files, finds a doctor’s note that he’s still a “patriot” in need of a mission, and assumes what the CIA maintains in its records is true (has she never seen a Bourne movie?).
Heather’s former Stanford classmate, Aaron (Riz Ahmed), embodies another sort of naïvete, a social media platform founder who now regrets that he promised a back door to the CIA (and where has he been?). Aaron’s presence allows Jason Bourne to namecheck Edward Snowden a couple of times, so its fractured story and storytelling might pretend to have a foothold in a world that resembles yours, a world where physical or temporal rationality might matter.
This is the Bourne repetition. Political and personal, familiar and impossible, visceral and ghostly, Bourne’s battered body and hyper-trained brilliance overcome all opponents. Not knowing doesn’t make him not responsible, the films keep telling you. His quest cannot end. His patriotism relies on not remembering. If he ever does “remember everything”, his story might change into one that’s less palatable.