A man with amnesia (Matt Damon as Jason Bourne) must elude assassins while trying to piece together his identity. Rated PG-13 for violence and language.
One of the more interesting moments in The Bourne Identity comes about a quarter of the way through the film. Franka Potente plays Marie Kreutz, a woman who has agreed to drive a stranger to Paris in exchange for $10,000. She doesn’t quite believe him when he says he has amnesia, but she is quickly confronted with the fact that she is in very real danger as long as she is with him. Yet she is also attracted to him and perhaps even more to the prospect of a new and different life. As he tries to convince her to walk away from him for her own safety and to make it easier for him to run, you can see the indecision on her face. Over and over Jason Bourne keeps repeating, “I’m trying to do the right thing.” Quietly, almost to herself, Marie says, “Nobody does the right thing.” It is an intriguing little moment and representative of what is both good and maddening about the newest summer thriller.
On the plus side, the writing and acting flesh out the characters in what is essentially a two hour chase scene. On the down side, the little touches that round out the characters don’t quite manage to elevate the movie out of the generic action category. Don’t get me wrong, The Bourne Identity is efficient and enjoyable. But it is also a little formulaic.
One problem with amnesia as a plot device is that it makes it nearly impossible to have character development. Because amnesia is so rare, the uniqueness of the situation has to compensate for the inability to bond with or identify with the character. Although there is one scene where Bourne expresses distaste for the lifestyle he discovers he led, Damon never quite communicates the frustration of his situation to the degree that Guy Pearce did in Memento. Damon is as good an actor as Pearce, but the problem is that the film wants us to admire and enjoy Bourne’s efficiency when it keeps him alive and yet sympathize with Bourne’s new found angst at the sources and implications of that skill.
The Bourne Identity invites comparisons with the Robert Redford’s classic Three Days of the Condor. Both movies feature members of an intelligence agency on the run from their former employers. Both fugitives meet up with women by chance and form a bond with them. To be honest, one of the elements that feels dated in The Bourne Identity is the attraction of Marie to Jason which allows her to throw in with him too quickly. I understand that she is a little desperate and a little bored, but in the post-Ted Bundy, terrorist, serial killer climate that is the early twenty-first century her decisions cross from risky to reckless. Certainly there is supposed to be a spark of decency in Jason that all the training and brainwashing could not eradicate, and perhaps Marie is supposed to see this in him. Her willingness to see and trust that strain is indicative of the film’s (and I suspect the book’s) argument that people are ultimately, deep-down, good. The film’s climactic flashback that explains the circumstances leading up to Jason’s amnesia reinforces that theme as well.
The fact that the film tries so hard to invest Jason with a sense of decency and goodness obscures the fact that he was (we don’t know for how long) a very willing and competent assassin. How do we reconcile this faith in the innate goodness of man with the situation he was in? The Bourne Identity was published in 1984. It came at the tail end of an era of extreme distrust in government, especially covert government groups. The disillusionment created by Watergate, the Vietnam War and Iran-Contra provides the deeper historical context for the cultural work of this film. The big fear through most of the 60s and 70s and early 80s was that of sociological manipulation. Villains tend to be people or agencies seizing or using power to corrupt basically good individuals. These works are the natural successors of dystopian fictions such as 1984 and Brave New World.
By the middle of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s people began to become more worried about technology running amok and acquiring an influence or power of its own. The villains in films of this era became depersonalized forces (technology itself) rather than the individuals using or manipulating power for their own ends. Think of films such as Terminator, The Matrix, or Jurassic Park. Sure, in the latter the immediate danger is the dinosaurs, but the real villain is the technological imperative that permeates corporate culture and which is condemned by Ian Malcolm: “Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
The Bourne Identity provides a bridge between these two eras. We see residual faith in the individual, but we also see a growing awareness that the forces that shape (and threaten) an individual’s ability to formulate his own identity are not just threats when manipulated by a nefarious cognizant source. The result of being between two eras is that Bourne’s optimism too often comes across as naïveté (especially in the very unsatisfying and storybook ending) and its serious questions are more often sidestepped than addressed.
Still, it is nice that some of the more thoughtful issues are presented even if they are not plumbed. Despite some great action sequence,s it is the little moments in this film that stick with you. “Is he good for you?” Marie’s brother asks in one of the film’s too few quiet moments. The complexity of that seemingly simple question and the film’s awareness that there is a deeper level to it that may lead to a different response demonstrate the thoughtfulness with which the film was crafted. If that care had been combined with a little more substance, The Bourne Identity could have been great. Instead it makes us settle for good.
“There is no one who does good, not even one” (Romans 3:12).
My Grade: A-
(This review originally appeared at Viewpoint, a precursor to 1More Film Blog. I got a request from a reader to make it available.)