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Commentary Last Updated: Jan 7th, 2008 - 01:09:22

The Bourne paradox: the hunted as hunter
By Jerry Mazza
Online Journal Associate Editor

Jan 7, 2008, 01:06

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This headline is not the sequel to The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, The Bourne Ultimatum, or soon-to-be Bourne Legacy. This paradox, hunted as hunter, is the theme that runs through the striking CIA film trilogy from the original novel(s) by Robert Ludlum.

David Webb (played by Matt Damon), is given a new name, Jason Bourne, to represent a new identity, a transformation from a patriotic if naive young man who signs on with the Agency to do whatever he has to do �to save Americans.� Yet, given his baptismal in water-boarding and the fire-power of his first kill, Bourne becomes instead a near-perfect, �Manchurian Candidate,� a super-human programmed killer, working for a black ops group called Operation Treadstone, which in the last film is scrapped and morphs into Blackbriar (sound like Blackwater?). Through all, Bourne�s ability to receive and respond to violence boggles even the best of the CIA minds. He is their self-made, best and worst nightmare.

Yet Bourne is so traumatized by flashes of his initiation, his kill, his subsequent kills; so beset by a still-breathing conscience that he turns on the very programmers who have declared him �fair game� for failing a mission; that is, not killing an African political leader in front of his children, knowing full well he would have to kill the children, too. For this act of humanity and others, Bourne nearly pays with his life throughout the three linked thrillers.

Waking in the waters of the Mediterranean off Imperia with two gunshots wounds in his back and a device with the number of a Swiss bank account embedded in his hip, and suffering from amnesia, Bourne realizes he can still speak in several Euro languages, write, tie knots, though he remembers little else of himself.

He suffers recurring headaches, flashes of initiation memory, being submerged with a black hood on in a pool of water, sliding off a board into the recurrent blue water, of having his identity literally drowned, and the new man surfacing, searching for his past life, yet having to constantly defend his present life. If this seems heady stuff for a movie, it is. And it is brilliantly executed, given the collaboration of novelist Ludlam with director Doug Liman, screenwriters Tony Gilroy, William Blake Herron and others, including playwright Tom Stoppard, a Pulitzer Prize winner.

A 21st century morality play

Thus, what we have here is not just an action thriller trilogy, but a morality tale for the 21st century. Though Ludlam died on March 12, 2001, in Naples, Florida; and even though The Bourne Identity was scheduled for release in September 2001, the cruelest month, the tug of war between studio and creative people took the budget up $8 million to $60 million and the release date to June of 2002, making it a thoroughly, eerily resonant tale of intelligence malfeasance, a CIA newly awarded the right to terminate its own operatives in pursuit of Treadstone�s specious ops.

In fact, The Bourne Identity/Supremacy/Ultimatum correlate with today�s intelligence, government and political realities like a hand in a glove, the three films seamlessly tracking the nominal death of David Webb, then Jason�s steady return to his past, back to Webb and his own human spirit. In the process, Bourne baits and hunts the hunters for his survival, as they practice their newfound powers to obliterate him as collateral damage, utilizing the latest weaponry, computer science and man-seeking �eyes on the ground� available everywhere.

This is populist, collaborative, activist art at its best, helped by the fact that the initial author, Ludlum, maintained the right as a producer from the get-go to prevent his property from being assaulted along with his hero. What has been done is to expand and contemporize the film story from the novel.

Thus, the Bourne trilogy ranges from New York across the pond to Europe to Hong Kong, Russia, and England, Africa, and back. In so doing, it gives you a sense of the pervasiveness of the linked American and international intelligence communities. It is a thousand-eyed Argus at the gates of the world�s cities, monitoring, gathering data, eerily controlling and out of control, corrupt at its highest levels, leading its own soldiers into oblivion to protect the careers of its directors, their minions, their personal-profit agendas, and not necessarily the well-being of the United States.

The trilogy�s characters are as misguided as today�s CIA�s, destroying torture tapes, conducting rendition flights, involved in money laundering, drug and arms sales, destabilizing and replacing governments, including flights of awfulness all over the globe.

The prettiest thing about the picture(s) is the shooting, that is, of film, and yes, of some of the bad guys. The documentary reality of the film, the pacing, the sights, the leaps from country to country, continent to continent, the sound montages underscoring the relentless movement and energy of Bourne & Company give you a sense of a �helter skelter,� chaotic world, including a handful of car chases that leave The French Connection�s joy ride in the dust; all done with an uncanny resemblance to here/now.

Death and rebirth in water

In the end, Bourne baits and switches his hunters to the position of the hunted and he, the hunter, then takes them with equal brutality; and takes a safe full of documents and plans that will condemn them all before Congress. He hands these over to his female colleague, the stoic CIA Deputy Director Pamela Landy, played by Joan Allen. Handing the plans over, he tells her �these are what got me into this, and these are what will get me out.�

Indeed, as he walks away, he is attacked again. Leaping through a window, he falls some 10 stories into the East River, deep into the dark water again, seemingly motionless, hanging in limbo, until his arms begin to move, his legs follow, and he swims away, Lazarus back from the dead, headed for life. And so, Bourne triumphs over the death around him.

In the end, Bourne finds his redemption in the pursuit of right action, following every whiff of his stifled conscience. This is a message for everyone, not just the CIA. It asserts our humanity, our ability to choose right from wrong, to put justice and courage beyond a patently misguided patriotism and to free oneself from its deadly commandments. In doing so, Jason Bourne (bourne: archaic for boundary, limit destination, goal; and stream or brook) is technocracy�s Everyman returned to humanity�s David Webb.

Bourne (born again) is beyond The Fugitive, originally a successful TV series, then twice a movie of a doctor wrongfully convicted of murdering his wife (based on the life of Dr. Sam Sheppard). Bourne is more steeped in evil, with no friends, few allies. In Sheppard�s case, fellow doctors stand behind him and many friends believe in his innocence. Bourne has a lover/wife Maria Helena Kreutz, played by Franka Potente, whom he loses to an assassin�s bullet meant for him. Bourne also befriends Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), a CIA operative, whom he must part with to save her life as he is relentlessly pursued.

Connie Rice aside, the women in this man�s world seem to be more capable of redemption. I don�t think that�s just about Hollywood. Assassins of one kind of another surround Bourne like wolves out of the woodwork. The killing is one on one, personal, in small framed, low-key scenes, lacking the panoramic explosions of apocalypse blockbusters. Yet this intimate danger creates an ongoing tension in the hero�s journey, sustained until the very last scene. It is amazing to me how many of the news stores we write and read have been translated into film language here. Its art conveys political truth like a seasoned reporter. It gives me hope.

Would that the prolific Ludlum have lived to see this trilogy completed. Strangely, Ludlum was not an intelligence insider but an avid researcher. Ludlum, born in 1927, worked as a stage and television actor and playwright for a good deal of his life. He grew up in New Jersey. He fought in the South Pacific in WW II with the U.S. Marines. Perhaps his most prophetic novel, The Prometheus Deception (2000), was a story that included a series of terrorist attacks used in an international conspiracy to restrict civil rights and to increase electronic surveillance for security reasons. Sound familiar? It�s no wonder that Ludlum�s many fast-moving, action-packed novels backed by his intuition for political realities have sold some 290 million copies worldwide. The film versions have received a wide audience, with the box office dollars to match.

Also, the inner workings of the life-like Treadstone organization came from input from Director Doug Limon, later producer on the Supremacy and Ultimatum. Paul Greengrass took over the director�s helm. Limon�s father had actually worked for the National Security Agency (NSA) under President Reagan. Limon�s dad�s memoirs of his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair�s investigation were particularly inspiring and relevant to him and the trilogy. Many aspects of the Alexander Conklin character (coordinator of Treadstone and Bourne�s immediate superior, played by Chris Cooper) came from no less than Oliver North, still among us today.

Hopefully, Bourne leaves in his tracks a like amount of consciousness as entertainment and that they are not paradoxical. If this is what it takes to teach, I�ll take it.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer living in New York. Reach him at Thanks to my 18-year old son Mike for turning me on to Bourne, asking for the Ultimatum for Christmas. It was a pleasure watching all three (and repeats) together. Hopefully, the seasoned can learn from the young as well.

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