Saturday, August 11, 2012

The Bourne Legacy and the Perils of Empire

I was likely fourteen when I read The Bourne Identity, and I loved it. I still remember a moment midway through the book when Bourne walks into a parking lot and perceives in his peripheral vision the glint of a rifle scope in the distance. Instantly, unthinkingly, he falls to the pavement and rolls behind a car; a bullet ricochets off the asphalt where he'd just stood. His primary response to what's happening is baffled awe. How did I know I was about to be shot at?

The book becomes a prolonged meditation on those types of questions. Why am I so good at  surviving, at fighting? How is it I'm a killing machine? Most fundamentally: Who on earth am I?

Jason Bourne reflected his time. Through the slog of the Cold War, the United States had become a globalized military power, efficient in the arts of killing. But after the Vietnam War, wounded, battered, it faced an identity crisis. The beginning of The Bourne Identity gives us an appropriate metaphor for the American condition at the the end of the 1970s: we are Jason Bourne, wounded and bleeding, wondering who we are, and in need of re-birth. America had become a bewildered killer, without an identity, in search of its past—or of a future worth living to see. In Ludlum's vision, Bourne's solution was simple: withdraw from battle. But the world wouldn't let him.

The Bourne Legacy reflects its Age every bit as succinctly as The Bourne Identity did. In the film, the United States has become an Orwellian, corporatist-scientific super-State, its citizens under constant surveillance. Our super-hero is no longer a reluctant, baffled Everyman but a wounded soldier now hyper-enhanced by genetic manipulation and paramilitary-survivalist training. He (read "we") is no longer in flight from his superpowers but dedicated to making them permanent. They aren't a bewildering curse but his reason for being.

The movie itself is ok. There's a chilling scene—basically unwatchable—in the middle of the film when a scientist hunts down his colleagues in their workplaces, calming killing them, one-by-one. I don't want to imagine a single American watching that scene with enthusiasm, entertained—but there are many things I don't want to imagine about my fellow Americans, and that has never stopped them from being true.

Ultimately the film acquires its force from the usefulness of its metaphor. We are no longer Jason Bourne, looking to understand—and escape—what we've become. We are now Aaron Cross; we know who we are and want to be nothing else. Cross's name, like Bourne's, is on point: we have arrogated to ourselves the role of global messiah.

One assumes that in the inevitable sequel Bourne and Cross will come face-to-face. Which vision of the American hero will triumph?

The Bourne Legacy's abrupt ending and its heroes' last words might offer a hint—and reason for hope.

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