Even if we include the requisite high-speed chase scenes and close quarter martial arts collisions in which the camera shakes so badly that no one in the theatre can tell what’s going on, The Bourne Legacy manages to deliver a cerebral subplot that surprisingly rivals its predecessors.
A government agent is supposed to be a cog in the machine. A good agent carries out orders unfeelingly and without hesitation. If The Bourne Legacy was just another cliche film about an agent who decides to run counter to the machine because he is just too cool to take orders from the desk jockeys who really run things, there would be little to write about it other than the standard promotional slogans like “What a ride!” and “Special effects that make you sit up!”
Something more was going on in this movie. It was an indictment of the entire corporate machine. Agent Cross, our protaganist, is an elite special agent but he appears vulnerable and runs up against the limits of being human a number of times in the film. He gets sick, bleeds, needs medical help and even shivers when he gets cold. When government insiders decide to kill him in order to cover up their tracks, he is forced to fight back on the run.
Then it gets interesting. The high-level executives who need to cover their tracks have used top-level medical researchers to optimize agents such as Cross. When the agents are assassinated, the medical researchers must be eliminated as well. The entire operation has been built on behavior modification, so it is not difficult to plant a loyal but twisted doctor amidst the medical research team, who goes nuts, brings a handgun to work and goes on a shooting spree, conveniently killing those who know about the program.
The media reports the standard line: another lone gunman strikes out and kills innocent bystanders, how terrible, can’t we have more gun control…etc. The movie is venturing into dangerous territory and I don’t think it could have been unintentional. The filmmakers are asking us to consider a different explanation to the standard narrative that sees a lone gunman as a random tragedy. Is it possible that some killings by a “random gunman”, could have been an organized “hit” on someone the powers that be wanted to have eliminated? Obviously the movie was not inspired by the theatre killings in Colorado, but there are some uncanny similarities, that could suggest a similar government or corporate involvement. The Colorado shooter,, was doing cutting-edge research on neuroscience. He was being evaluated by a professional psychiatrist. He was on prescription medication. Videos of his first court appearances show him struggling to keep his eyes focused, not as if he is tired, but if he has been drugged in court to keep from making any embarrassing moves. Numerous media outlets noted how “zoned out” and “odd” the defendant looked until the judge blocked media access. The suspicious smell of the whole affair is amplified by the judge cutting off the public from knowledge of the proceedings. It does look as if the government has something to hide in this case. Of course all of this is speculation, but the larger point is that it is not implausible that the government would use a planted individual with psychological imbalances to put out a hit on an individual. Government has been granted the authority to assassinate American citizens, which means it is looking to cover it’s butt for actions it has already taken.
Perhaps you have tuned me out now. Perhaps I am wrong. You are free to disagree with me that such a callous method would be used by our leaders, but this is the question being raised by The Bourne Legacy: How do we have any way of really knowing how far our government would go to assassinate threats? Any honest person has to admit we don’t really know. The movie is simply raising the possibility that allows us to ask the question, “How do we know that tragedies involving a “random” shooter, were really random?” We are cogs in the machine, ready to defend the machine against anyone our leaders tell us is an external threat, hoping that we will not be labelled a threat, living in fear.
The Bourne Legacy is making a statement about responsibility. It is not enough to note that the corporate-government machine is so large that its left hand does not know what its right hand does. For all of us, to work and live in a way that supports such a massive machine, we are culpable for its actions. This means it will target us and take us out when it no longer has any use for us. If we have lived to serve it without question, we have little right to complain when it turns against us, for we remained silent when it turned against others. The Nuremberg trials made clear that humanity had entered a new era of ethics; The old excuse of “I was following orders” is not good enough. The Bourne Legacy paints a crucial picture, that although fictional, makes real the point that the modern, western world system has flagrantly violated the lessons we learned at Nuremberg. Everyone is taking orders, the system works because must people do as they are told, proud of their insignificant sense of loyalty. And when the system is finished using such people, they are cast aside so that the system as a whole is not inconvenienced.
The audience watches as the special agents are assassinated and the medical team who enhanced the agents is killed by a loyal assassin who is reported by the media to be a “lone” gunman. But one medical doctor survives. Of course she is the prettiest and most sympathetic, we are still in Hollywood, after all. She tries to get out of town after the shooting of her colleagues. But more government agents show up at her door and try to evaluate whether she has given up any classified information to friends or family. And then the movie unfolds another dangerous scene. The agents find a revolver in the house and easily restrain the woman, put the gun in her hand, and force her arm down to point the gun at her temple. The story is clear, the government agents can kill her and make it look as if she committed suicide. The film even goes so far as to tell us what story the government will concoct to cover up its crimes: the media will be told that the doctor was traumatized by the slaughter of her colleagues but then blamed herself because she was allowed to live. No one will question the “suicide” narrative. The scene was played out in a brilliantly intentional way so that the audience can see that this suicide narrative is pure lies yet such a lie that the public will lose interest in the case and allow the government to cover its tracks.
The movie thus unfolds two major paradigms that allow the audience to reinterpret current events. When a lone gunman mows down a crowd of innocent people, could it be a government assassin completing a “hit” on a target? At the very least, we have no way of knowing whether this possibility is beyond the pale, for we are just cogs in a machine whose one hand knows not the doings of its other. And when we hear that some figure with explosive testimony who is ready to publicly testify has again committed “suicide”, should we accept the implausible narrative? Does anyone remember the case of the “DC Madam” who ran a prostitution ring for senators and other elite leaders? Just before she was set to testify, she was found in a suspicious suicide, even after she had told others that she looked forward to testifying. This kind of situation has happened fairly often. The Bourne Legacy is doing a great public service in pointing out the obvious, we need a new paradigm to interpret these kinds of stories when they appear in the media.
Hollywood has broken dangerous ground like this before. In the 90’s, The X-Files suggested numerous paradigms that could explain current events better than the mainstream narrative being offered. The X-files movie came out three years after the events of the Oklahoma City Bombing, its reference to that event was unmistakeable. In the early scenes of the movie, the government has to eliminate a few bodies that have been turned gelatinous by an alien virus. The government allows an entire building to be blown up, duping the media into creating a narrative about disgruntled terrorists. The implication was clear, the government’s line is phony and the citizenry would be better served to ask more rigorous questions. I noticed that the popularity of the X-Files immediately waned after this movie was released. Behind the ridiculous stories of alien conspiracies was a subplot that encouraged citizens to question the dominant paradigms of the news.
Another film that suggested to an audience the idea of looking past the dominant paradigm of the news was therelease, Tomorrow Never Dies, in which the main villain is a media mogul who is toying with public perceptions. The film opens with a swipe at an American president who is being manipulated into making dangerous concessions because he is desperate to keep his unsavory sex life from being made public. This was a clear reference to Bill Clinton’s ongoing harassment trial, before made the news. The Brits, for all their own corruption, could see that having a president who could be compromised in such a way was irresponsible and needed to at least be investigated. I know some of you are hopping mad now, that’s because you carry a number of irrational assumptions. I am not saying Clinton was a bad president or that he should have been impeached, I am merely saying that his sex life required him to illegally intimidate those around him into silence and at the same time allowed him to be manipulated by larger powers who had dirt on him. This was a dangerous situation that finally exploded when one of the intimidated employees finally got sick of being bullied into silence. It needed to be investigated and only an irresponsible fool would think there was nothing wrong with letting sleeping dogs lie. The real problem was that an impartial investigation couldn’t happen without politics obstructing everything. The Republicans were as much to blame for that as the Democrats. But some kind of investigation was absolutely necessary because the case was not merely about sex, it was about intimidation and bribery. The Brits knew that and made a movie with a reference to it that probably flew right over most heads in American theaters.
Hollywood and the film industry in general should be expected to be ahead of the curve when it comes to propaganda. They are masters at creating it so it is little wonder that they often see through the pathetic attempts by government and its lackeys in the news media who attempt to spin stories to guide the public’s perception of current events.
Let’s review. We are not saying anything outlandish here. We are saying that films do sometimes, albeit rarely, question the dominant paradigms behind the media’s portrayal of current events. A Brit-made 007 flick clearly took joy in sneering at a US president compromised by his sex life, pointing out the implications such a situation has on national security. The X-files entertained audiences with a slew of silly conspiracy theories about the paranormal, but behind this silliness, was a subplot of how media spins the narrative to explain events in a way that allay public suspicions. The Bourne Supremacy likewise challenges us to ask better questions, to realize that we don’t know the whole story any more than the the left hand of the elites know the doings of the right hand, to realize that if we serve the machine as cogs, we are just as guilty, just as responsible as the soldier on the front line who pulls the trigger when frightened and kills an innocent bystander.
Two dangerous paradigms have been brought up by this movie. We don’t know the extent of our government’s assassination programs, we don’t know what lengths our government would go to murder those who are inconvenient, we don’t know who makes those decisions and how responsible they are, we don’t even know that many of the “lone gunman” narratives are truth.
We also must view with great suspicion the large numbers of people who have died as “suicides” right before they were set to testify or otherwise talk. To not ask these question is naive. Such is the premise of our film. Asquipped, “The sky is filled with good and bad that mortals never know.” The standard narrative is for the naive.
So the chase is on and the movie delivers a crescendo of breathless scenes that unfold with the precision of falling dominoes. The roles are well-cast and the acting of the protagonists is compelling. The acting of the government bureaucrats falls flat, but it appears the director has purposely reigned in these parts so that the villains seem like lifeless busybodies in comparison to the more human characters who are no longer cogs in a loyal machine. The villains did not seem to have many redeeming features, they were one-dimensional beings intent on showing how brusque and businesslike they were. Although this wore a little thin at times, the audience could see there was a conscious intention behind it. The juxtaposition of the professional, loyal bureaucrats and the protagonists colored the whole film.
This tension illumined the brilliance of what this film was trying to do. At one moment we see the elite, holding all the technology and all the mathematical advantages, secure in the power the system gives them. But the system required their absolute loyalty, their unquestioning subservience. They could not afford to be too attentive, too be to alive, to really think outside the box. Agent Cross, the protagonist moves among the masses undetected because modern society wants a populace that is numb, that is not too alert. This film is an attempt to convey what it means to live three-dimensionally instead of monotonously.
Before the end astute audience member begins to appreciate that this plot goes beyond the predictable action film where a rogue cop or disgruntled agent bucks the system and goes against the grain. At some point the protagonist here has made his point, has proven that he is more human, more real, more alive than anyone who opposes him. It matters not whether he lives or dies, his triumph is in his will to be, his transcendence of being a cog in the machine. He has become responsible for who he is. Unlike so many Hollywood action films, even the female protagonist clearly asserts her own will to be and takes ownership of her situation before the conclusion.
We are responsible for who we are, for what we serve. One cannot merely say, “I am just a scientist” anymore than one can say, “I was merely following orders.” Modern western society has put itself into a state where real responsibility is denied. It needs footsoldiers, loyal, unquestioning, one-dimensional. But it is not just military recruits who are part of this army; scientists, doctors, lawyers, reporters, economists, anyone who is willing to pull strings or do what is asked without having the responsibility to ask what the larger goal is, has given themselves up to be a cog in a tyrannical machine. To say, "I am just a nuclear physicist, I am not responsible for atomic warfare," is no different than a fascist who says, "I was just following orders." That is what this film is about. This is not merely a movie about another special agent who is the optimum of mental and physical conditioning. It is about the experience of multi-dimensional awareness of life, responsibility and reality that is humanity’s birthright. It is a tribute to the magnificent possibilities open to human beings willing to face the darkness inside and not serve forces that demand we be unclear in our aims and intentions.