Thursday, May 22, 2008

Cats hunting for one smart mouse: Matt Damon in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

10 years ago, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck co-wrote the excellent Gun Van Sant film Good Will Hunting. After winning an Oscar for their screenwriting, both men became Hollywood stars. Since then, Affleck has taken various missteps (recovering some with his direction of Gone, Baby Gone), while Matt Damon just keeps finding one smart vehicle after another culminating with The Bourne Ultimatum.

Deeply intertwined with the previous two films in the trilogy, Ultimatum concerns Bourne’s quest to find out his origins as a rogue CIA-brainwashed assassin. As he hop scotches around Europe and Morocco seeking information such as the top secret Operation Blackfriar file, high-level CIA officials Noah Vosen (David Strathaim) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) quarterback multiple surveillance teams to try to track him down, figure out his motivations, and then kill him.

With his slightly bland All-American WASPy jock’s face, Damon doesn’t look that much like an action hero, but that may be the point. He knows how to blend in to the crowd and act ordinary as he evades the various cameras hunting for him. While other films might emphasize guns or explosions, director Paul Greengrass, who also directed United 93, focuses on the way public spaces in cities have become massive centers for surveillance. We all have been forced to get used to security cameras trained on us in gas stations, banks, and public squares. The Bourne Ultimatum meditates on our uneasy relationship with the camera, the desire to not be seen, to find ways to disappear from the media grid. Greengrass uses handheld cameras and whip-fast editing to keep the audience in complete suspense as Vosen screams out “Give me eyeballs on the scene,” forcing his agents to scramble to find some camera to zoom in on Bourne. In London’s Waterloo station, Bourne arranges to meet a reporter for the Guardian, but once he notices CIA agents swarming around, he slips a new cell phone in the reporter’s pocket, gives him a call, and then directs him through various surveillance phalanxes. As the agents say “Target is on the move” into their sleeves, Bourne has the reporter bend down in the crowd to tie his shoe to elude them.

When not evading the CIA, Bourne has to confront various hit men using whatever tools come to hand. When running across the roof of a Moroccan casbah, he grabs some pieces of drying clothes off the line, wraps them around his hands, so he can grab the top of a glass-lined wall to vault over. When fighting with a trained assassin, he’ll use anything--a book, a magazine, or even an oscillating fan to stop him.

Back at the CIA, Noah Vosen proves heavy-handed, sending out kill orders for Bourne and just about any glamorous starlet he may run into, such as Julie Stiles. We learn that Vosen has been indulging in black ops, interrogations, tortures, lethal actions, what he calls the “sharp end of the stick” in CIA tactics, so Pamela Landy questions his authority, creating a power struggle within the agency. There are hints of the Abu Ghraib-style abuses in the secret files that Bourne seeks to uncover, so the film hints at dubious shifts in recent American foreign policy decisions and fantasizes about a change in direction. Still, the movie maintains a nice moral ambiguity about its hero. Bourne can never be a James Bond because the circumstances of his training are too twisted. He has reflexively killed too many people, and he only partially knows what is going on. As a mouse, however, Bourne knows how to spy on the cat, and make it trip on its own tail, and that’s what makes The Bourne Ultimatum one of the sharpest action films.

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