The truth shall set you free! or, “I like that scene very much, because it was very realistic”
I’ve been watching the first Jason Bourne movie, the twenty-seven millionth time that Matt Damon plays “guy with amazing powers.” Talk about typecasting. I found the extras on the dvd really interesting, and I’ll talk about that in a second.
But first, a detour. Before he became the Sultan of Mesopotamia, General Petreus was the guy that wrote the Army’s insurgency-counterinsurgency manual. I’ve looked at some of it; you can download it online, and it’s an interesting read, a compilation of “lessons” from various counterinsurgencies, from Algeria to Vietnam to the stuff Mao wrote, and much more. It says something, in fact, that the historical scenarios that the Army is trying to learn from are, without exception, campaigns between a Western colonial power and a colonized populace. But I’m most interested in how they understand how an insurgency works and the lessons this forces them to draw. Mao had the idea that a successful insurgency must be at home among the masses, like a fish in water, as he puts it, living amongst the people and getting its support from them. And modern day China is living proof of that strategy’s success, as is the unified Vietnam, Algeria, and so on. People like Petreus understand this; to win a counterinsurgency campaign, you’ve got to keep the peasants from aiding the “terrorists.” But how you do that is kind of messy. While politicians like to pretend that a counterinsurgency campaign is about winning “hearts and minds,” about convincing the Good Muslims that democracy is a good thing and that they should just say no to those Bad Muslims, the way you separate the insurgents from the masses is not by passing out candy bars and children’s toys (I find it interesting, in fact, that so many newspaper articles use this image, a testament to the extent that it is still possible to imagine brown people as children). In Malaysia, in Kenya, in Vietnam, in Israel, in Ireland, and in Algeria, the counterinsurgents “won” by sealing populations off behind walls and checkpoints, searching people like cattle, throwing everyone they even remotely suspected of anything into detention then sorting them out later, surprise searches of people’s homes at gunpoint, torture, and nothing even vaguely resembling the rule of law. As people like Petreus are aware, it worked in a lot of places and they hope it will work in Iraq. In the film Battle of Algiers, there’s a scene where the French counterinsurgency guys draw up a flow chart of the FLN’s organizational structure, and you can see a reproduction of that chart in the back of Alistair Horne’s Savage War of Peace. Both the film and the movie are prominently cited in Petreus’ manual as being tools for understanding how counterinsurgency is to be fought, and it’s ironic, to say the least, that all sides seem to agree on the value of such techniques. Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara looked to Algeria and that film for guidance, but so have Ariel Sharon and George Bush (or so his handlers tell us). So it’s interesting that all sides agree that, more than anything else, the way to fight an insurgency is to control the people, and the way to control the people is through information. The terrorists, it is understood, have that information, and the counter-terrorists must get it.
But how do you get it? That brings us back to Jason Bourne. It’s a curiosity of the first Bourne film that it was filmed before September 11 but released after it. This put the filmmakers in a bit of a quandary. Like most Americans, they had no idea that actual people have, for years and years and years, been subjected to a variety of traumatic experiences like the trade center bombing, and, like most Americans, they assumed that their own national trauma had changed the course of world history. So they thought (as the screenwriter relates) that Hollywood would never be able to show explosions again, ever. This, of course, overlooks the fact that American action movies are quite popular in places where large proportions of the population have actually experienced actual bombings and actual terror (as opposed to Americans who are traumatized by having watched it on the news). Americans, of course, rarely look to non-Americans (particularly hte kind of people who have the crassness to be bombd) as people whose situations might tell them something about their own lives.
But I digress. These screenwriters wrote an alternate ending to the film, without explosions, and tried to think about what a Jason Bourne character would mean in a world after 9-11. One of the new scenes includes an absolutely ridiculous stunt where Our Man in Paris, having already shot up three of Chris Cooper’s goons, has to dispose of one more, who is at the bottom of a staircase and running up to get him. At this point, it has been established that Bourne can kill anyone, anywhere, with anything, so one would think that one more (non super-assassin) guy won’t cause much trouble. But he doesn’t just shoot him, he hurls the body of one of his earlier victims down the void between the spiral staircase and falls with it, shooting the last guy in the head as he passes by and then using the other guy’s body to break his fall. When I was first watching this scene, I noted two flaws in his plan. First, that’s a tough shot, and after all, you’ve shown your ability to gun down anyone anywhere at anytime already. Why not just wait until the guy gets to the top and shoot him then? This is a movie in which the assassins are pretty pragmatic; unlike a Bond villain, for example, Clive Owen’s assassin shoots the African dictator character (ask me about that guy, if you want an earful) through a window and then disappears. A Bond villain would have put explosives in his alarm clock or something. So it just seems a bit excessive, a cowboy movie stunt in a thriller that has aspirations to be realistic. And B, cushioning a fall like that with the other guy’s body still ends up with a very messed up Jason Bourne, who limps around for the rest of the movie. Again, why take that fall? Why not just shoot him?
After watching the DVD extras, I think I figured out why. Bourne and the other guy are supposed to look like people hurling themselves out of the twin towers (and the extras sort of acknowledge this in the way they refer to the scene; watch it and I bet you’ll agree that they’re directly referencing it). And the fact that Bourne gets all smashed up is all part of that post-september 11 thing, where America is wounded but still there, the ash-smudged and weary fireman still holding the flag and so forth. But the more interesting addition they make to the new film is an additional scene at the end, where the CIA chief who is behind it all and who bumps off Chris Cooper (O! Chris Cooper!) suddenly shows up and tries to hire Bourne to be a post-september 11 assassin for the good guys. Even though Bourne wants nothing to do with the CIA and even though the CIA chief is a total scumsucking pig, as he puts it, “everything has changed.” They need him, and now, apparently, he is supposed to come work for them for the cause of justice instead. This ending, in my opinion, blows. But not merely because I disagree with the politics; they also botch it aesthetically. One of my pet peeves is movie endings where the two love interests kiss instead of hugging. A kiss is often the wrong choice because it sexualizes a moment in ways that are often not appropriate (see the ending of Speed, for example), but Hollywood loves that kiss so they go with it. In this movie, a hug is clearly appropriate, and the movie ends with one; after all, the amnesiac Bourne and his gal Friday are not exactly in a flowers and chocolate romance. She is, as he puts it, “the only person I know,” and while they sleep together at one point, they also, pointedly, don’t sleep together at other points (he sleeps on the floor while she takes the bed). So, while they clearly mean something to each other, a kiss would imply as settled something that is very much up in the air, and the first go around rightly eschews it; after all, the last time they saw each other, they were in definite conflict and both were clearly not convinced that they had any real reason to want to see the other ever again. But the second version not only tags on a nauseating emo crooner as he runs down a hill toward her (not, thank God, in slow motion), but they go straight into a Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan style make-out fest from the beginning. The moral of this is not that movies shouldn’t try to be political. It’s that stupid people do it badly. Because they are stupid.
Back to the point. One of the things that is unique about Bourne is that, although he can kill people and has fancy gadgets and all, his main way of doing things is to be an incredibly fast and efficient calculator. The movie works very hard to establish that Bourne sees thing we don’t see, calculates angles we don’t calculate, and just generally lives on a level we can’t approach. Bond is a stylish secret agent; Bourne is a secret agent for the information age. This, too, is how the CIA wants to be seen to be: all seeing, all knowing, all powerful. Shock and awe, y’all!
In the extras, they interview a former CIA officer, who talks about the film as if Jason Bourne is just sort of a regular CIA ops guy, nothing special, implying that he too has done, if not all, at least most of the things that Bourne does. The fact that the CIA has, in recent years, been shown to be extremely fallible is certainly not the story this guy wants to tell; his arrogance is remarkable, in fact, but not as interesting as the fact that he really wants to convince the viewers that this really is how the CIA operates, that the CIA really is all knowing and all seeing. That he’s a complete tool is not the point; the point is that it almost seems plausible that the CIA can be watching everywhere, be able to strike with pinpoint precision in all sorts of scary ways, and so forth. As illustrated in a recent book (Legacy of Ashes by someone I forgot), the CIA is fairly clueless about most of the things they would need to know in order to do the things Bourne does. Speaking languages is the main one; if there were all kinds of clandestine ops going on all over the world, if Jason Bournes were out there blowing shit up and killing people, the CIA would need to have lots of people out there that know a ton about a lot of different societies around the world, speak the language, have lived there for a long time, etc. But, precisely because the CIA views anyone with a family connection to people out in “terroristland” as a security risk, the only people who get through the security screening are going to be people whose ancestors came over on the Mayflower. So while the CIA guy talks about Bourne’s incredible ability to absorb and process data (to walk into a room and remember the titles of all the books on the bookshelves), a CIA operative who doesn’t speak Arabic is going to pretty darn useless if that’s the script those books happen to be written in. That’s why Bourne can only happen in Western Europe. As that book illustrates, the CIA doesn’t have anything like the kind of infrastructure they would need to do all that cloak and dagger stuff, because hardly anyone in the CIA speaks Arabic at all well, and definitely not well enough to fool anyone into thinking that they aren’t what they are. In the Bourne movie, Julia Stiles is the Paris office for the CIA’s assassin program, and much of the action in those films runs through her. But, do you think the US could have that kind of operation in Iraq, now or ever? In Afghanistan? In Iran? Not to mention that most people who came over on the Mayflower don’t look a whole lot like your average resident of Sadr city. The point is not that it can’t be done; the interesting point is tht even though it can’t be done, so many people in positions of power find it useful to pretend that it can be done. And Bourne is the kind of movie that stokes those fires, makes us believe that super-computer CIA spies are really the way things work. That a CIA spy could say, with a straight face, that Bourne is “realistic” is not so much pathetic as it is interesting: that he could believe it is less revealing than the fact that others, apparently, believe it as well. That shows that it’s worked.
I find it interesting how Bourne, while a pre-Sept 11 film, feels more appropriate for the present time, a time when all the illusions that the war-crowd had have gone, given way to a kind of post-failure moment where absolutely everyone has to admit that the US war effort has gone very badly for all concerned. Even if the war’s architects are not the ones paying the price for that failure, even they have had to admit that something has to change, and as a result, we have the most anti-intellectual president in history appointing an intellectual to fight the war. But the idea that it is the American (and Bourne, even if he doesn’t know his own name, knows he is a US citizen) who embodies and defines the information age, that his incredible informational prowess is the thing that makes him an American spy (as opposed to your stylish but old fashioned James Bond, for example), seems to me to be a big part of what the movie was trying to do, just a bit before it became fashionable.