The Bourne Ultimatum
Directed by Paul Greengrass
Starring Matt Damon & Julia Stiles
Action movies are a guilty pleasure of mine. Recently, a friend opined that the perfect action movie would have two minutes of expositionary dialogue followed by 88 minutes of perfectly choreographed violence. I agreed at the time, however The Bourne Ultimatum has proved that action movies can do more than that. They can deeply critique the world we live in.
The Bourne Ultimatum is the third movie in the Bourne series, which stars Matt Damon as Jason Bourne, a former CIA special agent. In the first movie, The Bourne Identity, he was found in a river with no knowledge of his past, only his name and a deft facility with electronics. Attempting to rebuild his life, he discovers that he was an agent of the shadowy Blackbriar project who had been programmed to kill at a moment's notice. Bourne rejects his programming and tries to escape his handlers and uncover his past and his real identity.
The Bourne Ultimatum begins with Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), a journalist for the British Guardian, publishing an article on the Blackbriar program. He is then targeted by members of the US National Security Agency for termination: "Our target is a British national — Simon Ross, a reporter. I want all his phones, his BlackBerry, his apartment, his car, bank accounts, credit cards, travel patterns — I want to know what he's going to think before he does. Every dirty little secret he has, and most of all we want the name and real-time location of his source. This is NSA priority level 4. Any questions? ... I want rendition protocols, and put the asset on stand-by just in case."
Here the movie really adds something to the trilogy. Where the first two were primarily concerned with security agents out-of-control who had "gone rogue" and were using their resources for private gain, Ultimatum begins to question the existence of such agencies and the powers they possess, particularly in light of the so-called "war on terror".
The costs of such "security" are dealt with, from the very large to the very personal. Ultimatum begins in London, a city that has sleep-walked into a total surveillance society. The NSA tracks Ross using Britain's extensive closed-circuit TV cameras, of which there are an estimated 4.2 million. An article in the March 31 This is London noted that within 50 metres of the house where George Orwell wrote 1984 — a warning of a totalitarian Britain overseen by the slogan "Big Brother is watching you" — there are now more than 300 CCTV cameras, recording 24 hours a day.
The ease with which the NSA wiretaps mobile phones, reads email and is able to totally oversee the actions of individuals is dealt with in detail, and backed up by recent documents released by the FBI on its procedures. The FBI regularly records the conversations of US citizens, without their knowledge or a warrant, and uses software to detect keywords that might indicate that there is a security "threat". They often build up models of relationships between individuals in order to see who to further investigate.
Australia's own security agency, ASIO, is set to receive greater powers to use this sort of technology, with new legislation introduced into the Senate that would increase its ability to wiretap phones and record internet browsing habits and interactions without warrants. The case of the Barwon 13, who are currently in prison for allegedly talking in the abstract about the possibility of terrorist actions, shows where this can lead.
In Ultimatum unnamed "assets" assassinate enemies of Blackbriar after simply receiving a photograph and address on their mobiles. They use techniques that could be dismissed as local terrorism to disguise their actions, such as a car bombing in Morocco. This echoes many allegations made against occupying troops in Iraq, that they are linked to some of the car bombings in that country.
The movie is thus well-researched and somewhat plausible, unlike the continuing James Bond franchise that it seeks to replace. Bond was always smugly assured of the correctness of his actions and always felt nothing at the deaths of his enemies — apart from an opportunity for a witty one-liner — or for the deaths of his allies. Bourne on the other hand is tormented by his past actions. Damon plays the role with a quiet intensity that is as compelling as it is creepy. "I see all the faces of the people I have killed", he tells co-star Julia Stiles, "but never their names".
The September 7 US Socialist Worker quotes Damon on the difference between Bourne and Bond: "Bond is an establishment guy. He is a misogynist, an imperialist, he's all the things that Bourne isn't. He kills people then drinks a Martini. By the end of the second Bourne movie Jason is apologizing for killing people. I've never seen that in a big Hollywood movie before."
Ultimatum asks the question of how far people and governments are willing to go in the so-called "war on terror" and asserts that those with such power are self-serving and unconcerned with the safety of their citizens. By raising the issues of power and corruption in the "security community", Ultimatum is a socially conscious action movie. It's as much sense as flip kicks can make.