It is now late in the summer movie game, but sometimes the best is saved for last, and in this case the best three-peat movie has been saved for last this summer. The final movie based on the final novel Robert Ludlam wrote about Jason Bourne is now in theaters, and it succeeds at many levels. This one so eclipses the previous sequels of this summer, that it is almost easy to wonder what we were so excited about in May when it came to the Spiderman or Pirates movie series.
Some movies are fast paced, but are still full of filler of one sort or another. There is not an ounce of filler in this movie. Everything is important, and requires close attention-- not good for those who have tiny attention spans and are easily distracted. The Bourne Ultimatum does not rely on gimmicks, CG effects, or razzle dazzle. Even its chase scenes seem mostly tame compared to the one near the beginning of 'Casino Royale', for example. This is because you are watching a psychological drama--- Jason Bourne is searching for his true identity, by trying to remember his past. The issue has to do with character development, or in this case character revelation.
It has been said that memory is the key to identity, and identity formation, and there is a lot of truth in this. Jason Bourne is the perfect example of this truth. He cannot remember most of his past-- indeed he cannot even remember his real name. He must rely on fleeting flashbacks, and mostly on information given him by others, or taken from others, to reconstruct his past. Has his real identity been stolen from him, washed out by brainwashing, or did perhaps he willingly give it up-- perhaps in service to his country? These are the sorts of questions that haunt the man, and drive the plot onward and onward, until Bourne is reborn, by learning at least shards of his past. And this brings up an important point. A person cannot self-consciously become a new person, unless they have a firm grip on what they are leaving behind, And this in turn requires a memory of who one has been, a memory of the way one was, and how one became Jason Bourne.
One of the things that makes this taut 111 minute spy thriller so compelling is of course the drive to find out Bourne's past and so his original identity. In many ways this story is much like the masterful stories of John le Carre, originally in MI5 who retired to write spy novels, quite successfully. And Matt Damon plays his part to the hilt and deserves a nomination for best actor for his cumulative performances in these three films. We sense his anguish, his anger, his animosity, his angst, his ambivalence. What if he discovers he was even worse than a CIA hit man in his former self? What if he discovers that instead of serving his country, he has been serving the whims of a few powerful and wicked men in the CIA and their lust for violence? What if he learns that all the missions he has undertaken, and even the loss of his girl friend, have been for naught, or worse, for bad ends?
Fortunately there is not just Bourne, the troubled hero in this story, there are also two strong women who believe in him-- Pamela Tandy within the home office of the CIA and Nicky Prosser in the field. They are not just bit players in the drama, but are real partners that help Bourne not only pass on his ultimatum but pass his ultimate test and live to learn something of his identity. I have no wish to spoil the story line and end of the series, so I will leave it at that.
There are various aspects of this movie, however that ought to trouble us: 1) the ethics of some of the major players in the CIA who operate with a 'the ends justifies the means' attitude, or even an a-moral attitude when it comes to getting things done in regard to America's enemies. If it is ultimately lies, smoke, mirrors, deception, and murder that are defending us from our enemies, then God help us. 2) there are some things a country should never ask of its citizens, one of which is the voluntary giving up of one's own identity; 3) in America we often assume that 'we are what we do'. Our identity is wrapped up in the tasks or jobs we do, thus when asked 'Who are you?' Some will answer-- I am a doctor, I am a lawyer etc. No, that is not who you are-- that is what you do. Of course for Jason Bourne, this American obsessing with doing as a way of defining being is doubly problematic-- What he does is dirty, and can be shared with almost no one. Who he is beyond what he does is even unknown to himself. He is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and trying to get out. All of the moving around from Moscow to Paris, to Tangiers, to London, to NY is interesting but these are much shorter journeys than the ones Jason is traversing in his soul, searching for himself.
I do not recommend going and seeing the Bourne Ultimatum if you missed the first two films, or at least have seen neither of them. This story is not just another episode, it is the climax of the two previous films. Rent the first two before seeing this. And watch them closely. In some ways this film will remind you of the Mission Impossible series in that human intelligence is highlighted and esteemed. Bourne really does outsmart his interlocutors at many turns. But this is not just an escapade about escaping. It is a journey home, for better or worse. I for one will need to see this film several more times, to fully appreciate the journey's nuances.