Sunday, August 21, 2016

Jason Bourne


In a comment, a fellow Letterboxd user, Basil Dababneh, described the work of Michael Mann as “a mix of formal sophistication and ideological crudity,” and this phrase unlocked for me my issues with a different film, Jason Bourne. The film, while superficially entertaining, struggled to reach the highs of the previous Greengrass entries in the series. I consider both Supremacy and Ultimatum to be as close to perfect action films go: raw, visceral, exciting, formally compelling. Jason Bourne was to be a return to form, a reunion between the character that made Matt Damon a superstar and the director that helped him get there. Unfortunately, the film is an underwhelming, but still interesting mess. The major issue is the screenplay, which displays its "ideological crudity" brazenly.

Like the other two Greengrass Bournes, the film is a melange of handheld camerawork, characters walking with purpose, characters staring at computer screens, and frantically edited action sequences. As others have pointed out, the screenplay is a "greatest hits" package of all the elements that made Supremacy and Ultimatum so exciting. Likewise, the plot mobilizes some of the pet themes laboured over by the best two entries: surveillance, security, the liquidity of international borders, the limits of intelligence. Jason Bourne, though, wants to announce its themes more overtly, as if the two previous entries were too subtle (they weren't, but they were Benning-esque in comparison to this).

Many Hollywood blockbusters generate productive discourse thanks to insightful political analysis from critics and theorists. The traditional methodology is a hermeneutics of suspicion: the text withholds its ideological biases only for the perceptive critic to tease it out, revealing the sinister sociological/political/fiduciary implications. Films such as Jason Bourne ask for this critical strategy by gesturing towards real, actual geopolitical events and depicting the diegetic world with the trappings of realism (Bourne, while hypercompetent, doesn't simply fly or shoot laser beams from his eyes). Thus, the purpose of a textual analysis of the Bourne films is to persuade the reader that cultural objects, no matter how escapist, still have the traces of the ideological structures that inform and shape everyday life.

In other words, a critical reading of Jason Bourne using this rhetorical strategy would have me point to the film's interest in the antinomies of security and freedom, surveillance and privacy to demonstrate the film's healthy skepticism about the US government's powers. The film's heavyhanded didacticism should direct the reader to the same ostensibly liberal position that the government, while nominally working for the people's best interests, sometimes overreaches, but there still exists patriots (Bourne) who we can trust. Jason Bourne would like to position itself as "sousveillance" but I caution anybody who would be so generous in their reading.

Sousveillance contrasts with surveillance: in opposition to the "eye in the sky," the single sentry in the Panopticon, sousveillance is observation from below: the prisoners watching the guards. Sousveillance destabilizes the discursive control by watching by mirroring the act or reversing it. Practitioners of this strategy deploy small, wearable technology to remind those in power that watching, as a political act, works both ways, though this not be literal. Jason Bourne gestures towards sousveillance in multiple ways: the major opening setpiece occurs during a protest at the Greek parliament, with people watching from their homes, in the street, participating by recording. Later, users of a social media site concerned with privacy assault the CEO with cameraphones and flash photography, as his vested interest in their privacy makes him their hero. Even Bourne himself using tracking technology, GPS and cellphones, to manipulate the dramatic outcomes in his favour. In other words, Jason Bourne wants viewers to associate the film and its heroes with sousveillance as an act of necessary patriotism.


Yet, the aesthetics of the film do not match its thematic concerns. I can think of no other film series that fetishizes the act of looking at computer screens more than the Bourne films. This saga is positively obsessed with screens. The situation rooms in the CIA are teeming with screens of many sizes: small cellphones, medium computer screens, gigantic monitors lining the wall displaying endless noise of information and graphics. The buzzing of information crowds all the screens, crowds the room with literal noise as analysts and technicians read aloud pertinent information, all while the named characters frown at screens. Likewise, Bourne and his ally Nicky frown at screens gathering intelligence from the intelligence service. All the characters require screens for their drama to play out. Without screens, the cast would have no way of connecting with each other. Most characters in the film barely meet face to face. Instead, their interactions are through technology and screens: phones, looking at pictures of each other. Only until the character needs to be beaten up or killed do they meet face to face with either the antagonist or the protagonist. If characters rarely meet in person, much of the acting interaction is done with screens. As screens do not emote, the actors must perform affective labour for the audience. By positioning the screens as so endlessly important, the resultant sympathy is towards technology. With Bourne and Nicky in positions of oppressed (by the government), the audience should align themselves with the necessity of sousveillance. Yet, as aforementioned, the aesthetics do not entirely match this conclusion.

There's a single shot that sums up the ideological crudity of Jason Bourne: when cutting to an overhead location shot of Las Vegas, the film highlights the Trump Hotel and Casino by situating it in the middle of the composition. Other location establishing shots in the film have centered on narratively relevant buildings: the CIA's home base, the Lincoln Memorial, the office complex in London. Yet, the film chooses the Trump Hotel as its focal point to establish Las Vegas. The chase sequence through the Strip doesn't utilize the Trump Hotel at any point, making its central position in the shot more aesthetic than narrative. The garish opulence of the Trump Hotel, a sign of rapacious and ruthless capitalism if there ever was one, matches the loving glances taken by the camera's eye of screens and computers and technology. There's an classic Hollywood liberal distaste of excess, until that excess can be annexed for aesthetic pleasure: a giant gold building, a wall of glowing computer screens, a sleek Dodge Charger (which the film is at pains to specify for the audience), iPhone screens, silky icons and lines drawn across screens, a USB stick in the vague shape of a trumpet with "ENCRYPTION" splashed on its side.

No matter how pointed the film's thematic gestures towards a liberal suspicion of governance, the aestheticization of violence and film's love affair with technology upsets the ideological coherence. Thus, instead of a liberal Hollywood blockbuster, Jason Bourne ends up uncomfortably Republican in its insistence on patriotism, privacy, smaller government, and a free market. One of the major subplots of the film has the CIA Director meddling in the affairs of the aforementioned CEO. His company cannot grow freely and honestly as the Director keeps intervening, demanding access to data, etc. Though the film would love to be perceived as liberal in the healthy skepticism of governance, Jason Bourne ends up shrilly advocating for individual patriots who violently rebel against an unjust system. This is why I caution against reading sousveillance into the text. This is why I caution against the traditional method of unveiling the text's intended ideological textures. By presenting these antinomies of liberalism in such aestheticized ways, the film betrays its own ideological incoherence. It's a film that isn't secretly Republican or liberal; it's a film that doesn't know what it wants to say about anything though it wants to look cool.

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