What Jason Bourne Can Teach Us About Agendas and Suspension of Disbelief

Let me start by saying, if you watched this and liked it, or you plan on watching it sometime soon, don’t read on. There will be spoilers and there will be honesty. Brutal honesty. This film was a mess. A glossed up pile of poo, the budget was spent on a paintjob when it should have gone to the script. What I am about to discuss doesn’t even begin to cover the problems it had.

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The plot is not only painfully simple, it’s a rehash, a watered down summary of the last three: Dead girl he feels responsible for, evil government program trying to clean up after him, as he hunts a secret from his past with an asset on his tail.

However, Bourne was never really about the complexity of its plot, nor did it preach any particular message, it was about the depth of its characterisation, the humanity and intimacy it displayed in a genre that epitomised mindless spectacle, and the skilful way this was delivered. It became a turning point in modern film making, a masterclass in physical storytelling; and it managed to take a genre that was all about the unbelievable, and make it believable, without actually removing any of the established tropes. The car chase wasn’t ridiculous. It ran up and down stairs and somehow, evidenced by small touches, the concentration on the almost mundane, the way he checks the systems, the brakes, before he begins, made us fully invest in the possibility of what we were seeing.

It forced a complete rethink of Bond and countless other tired franchises. World War Z tried to copy it with a fresh credible take on the zombie genre. Unfortunately it focused on all the wrong parts, copying the grey tinted cinematography and the pared down dialogue, missing the point that when someone needed – needed by dint of who wouldn’t?– to scream in Bourne, they screamed. They threw up, fell down, they knew in essence who they were and what they were feeling, they weren’t just working to someone else’s agenda of what they should be.

There were no heroes in Bourne, there were only characters. Marie was foolish, naive and frequently showed that she didn’t fully grasp just how bad this was. Vikander’s character was a cypher in a suit. Perhaps in some recognition of just how ludicrously young she appeared in the role, she played it so seriously she was a virtual non-entity: a po-faced non character without charm, warmth or humanity. We saw Joan Allen, in a similar role, slowly shatter under the pressure, like a brittle figurine.

The tragedy is that there was a ready made character with an amazing potential arc in Julia Stiles. Nicky Parsons in the Bourne Identity was exactly the character Vikander should have been in this. And the way she developed from eager, frightened young analyst to whistle blower working on the outside made the screenwriters job easy. She was poised to finally step into the centre of the story and instead they reduced her to a trope, killing her off in a repeat of Marie’s tragic death in what I can only guess was meant to give our reluctant hero the motivation to see this through. Even though throughout the rest of the film his motivation was repeatedly referenced as his need to understand the truth of his past. The number of threads on IMDb detailing the disappointment of the fans over how Nicky’s character is treated, actually restores my faith in the viewing public.

I don’t know if its as simple as Hollywood being ageist, as many have surmised, not consciously at least. Julia’s been off the radar for a while now, while Alicia is the current It girl. And there is nothing Hollywood  – and certain directors  – love more than the hot, young muse. She and Jennifer Lawrence are both consistently miscast in roles that should have gone to women with at least a decade on them.

26 year olds don’t move and shake the ranks of the CIA. They climb, they conspire, but they don’t lead. In the American education system you’re likely to be near this age when you first apply, not running a major division. By the end of the film we are expected to believe she’s just secured herself the Assistant Directors job. Fiction needs some plausibility in its foundations if we are to justify the leaps we are about to take. If you make one obvious poor decision it can have the effect of turning a lens on all the other flaws, that might have slipped beneath the radar otherwise.

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I’ll confess to being a cyberdunce but even I was rolling my eyes at the cartoonish programming. They even conveniently distinguished in primary colours between the asset and Bourne’s phone trackers as if the photoshop guys had come in after with the highlighters. They probably had. Everything was simple, glib, answers had in under a minute – unless we needed to stretch the tension.

Bourne was stupid. I mean flat out stupid, although he did seem to acquire some new technical skills, impressive for a man who spent the last few years bare knuckle boxing in the dusty nowhere. The guy who had sized up a room and its occupants, exits, cameras and weapons before he ordered his coffee was now happily striding about with no worries about being recognised, using old passports and never thinking anyone might possibly be listening in.

Maybe it was nervousness on the part of the producers. They felt the need to ensure success. And producers it seems always reduce that to the lowest common denominator. The silly end stunt scene, the last twist, the unnecessary body count, the idiocy of staging a meet in the middle of a riot, all point to people making bad decisions, the kind of decisions that would count for miscasting the latest pretty young thing. Or – perhaps worse – actually imagining this will play to the feminist culture of the day.

This was a film that seemed painfully crammed with contemporary references in a desperate attempt to seem culturally relevant. Why else other than a nod to the current political – faux political – climate of the day, would you arrange a meet in the middle of a riot? Firebombs make pretty effects but the likelihood of being accidentally taken out by a panicking mob somehow undercut this.

And why did the CIA follow them in? Why not simply monitor the perimeter and move in when the targets reveal themselves? And there’s the plausibility issue in the number of active agents who are clearly onsite (even the CIA can’t defy the laws of physics and fly several thousand miles in less time than it takes Bourne to put his shirt on and wander down the road.) Not to mention their spec-saver-tastic ability to follow an average sized brown haired man through the rioting darkness. Although the real clincher was the moment a vanguard of Greek policeman decided the one guy fighting in the train was more important than holding the line against the dozens throwing firebombs and started to chase him as well.

There are frequent references to Snowden, which makes their decision to keep all their covert files internet accessible especially questionable; a privacy sub-plot which seemed shoehorned in; even a ‘con’, not the the bait and switch kind – although this whole film could be termed as that – no the modern kind, Exo-con, where we can justify flying to Vegas and blowing a lot of shit up under sparkly lights.

The logic holes are so gaping it seems nonsensical to imagine that one small casting change could remedy that. I personally would’ve voted for a script change and put Nicky Parsons front and centre. But like tipping over the first domino, the simple act of casting an actress more of an age with Bourne himself, or removing the intended romantic friction (there wasn’t any anyway) and casting an eager male hungry to prove himself and take the top job, creating a dynamic more akin to what we saw in Michael Mann’s Heat, would have subtly but significantly altered the way we watched.

Political correctness would hold that being young and pretty shouldn’t be a detriment to getting ahead. That you can cast attractive men and women alongside each other and somehow not bring romance into it. That we can in fact simply rewrite the way society works to how it we think it should work.

Should is a dangerous word if you want to introduce any sense of realism, even just basic credibility. When Vikander’s character randomly begins helping Bourne, we don’t think double cross, it might tickle the back of our mind, but the first loud thought – romance. We suspect (wisely, I suspect) they want to manoeuvre the two together. If it had been Joan Allen’s character, while some might have questioned whether her reaction, her willingness to see him not simply as a target might be ‘too feminine’ we’d still believe her motives, not revealed to us, were to manipulate the situation. In short, that she had some sort of plan.

Vikander’s casting was a constant and undermining distraction, inviting us not to assume more depth than was actually present in the onscreen twists, but telling us to see the film as it truly was, an empty, pretty spectacle.

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