With the release of the latest entry in the Jason Bourne series, Jason Bourne, it is a timely time to revisit the most famous of amnesiac spies. You know, just in case *you* have forgotten who *he* is and why his stories are both interesting and relevant to our present global crises, even if the latest instalment of the franchise may not be living up to the quality of its predecessors. I’m going to jump around a bit and discuss spoilers if you’ve not seen the original trilogy.
The trilogy, which began in 2002 with The Bourne Identity, invites us to consider the role and nature of intelligence services in our world. In the wake of September 11, 2001, almost 15 years ago, the three (and now four) films depict an advanced and highly trained intelligence service agent who has lost his identity and finds himself, in addition to being highly resourceful, in possession of a very special set of martial arts, surveillance and evasion skills. Jason Bourne’s goal is to find out who he is – his search for his identity is a search for his story and his place in the world, particularly in international affairs. He doesn’t know who he is, and we’re not really sure either. Is he a good guy or a bad guy? As the audience, we have found ourselves asking the same questions of intelligence services over the last decade…
Jason Bourne follows the dots and discovers he’s up against his former employers – handlers from a top secret “black bag” operation called Treadstone. He is an assassin, the product of a system that has attempted to dehumanize him to slavishly follow orders to undertake certain tasks, namely assassinations and other off the record activities through which, as we learn in Ultimatum, Bourne himself believed he would be saving American lives. By the time we reach Ulitmatum, this system is portrayed as extending tendrils all over the globe, a kind of omnipresent, omnipotent and omniscient, technological god. Nevertheless it appears this system plays a much more complex role in world affairs than he may have been lead to believe. As we discover in Supremacy.
At the end of Identity, Conklin says Bourne messed up when we as the audience know they messed up. They didn’t count on his humanity, his conscience, they couldn’t remove his humanity, to leave a child without a father. Bourne pays the price for desisting from the mission, effectively dying the death (metaphorically speaking) his intended target was supposed to die. But before Bourne can pry more information from Conklin and the various agents and players involved, Conklin is killed.
In a sense, Bourne, however he came to be in this situation also finds himself a victim of the intelligence service which achieves its goals by dehumanizing its subjects. But in Identity, Maria is moved with compassion to help him discover and recover his humanity and his compass, which as he recalls was not lost, only suppressed… while Conklin says Bourne fails because his job was deception not assassination, Cooper fails to remove his humanity.
But ultimately in Ultimatum, we learn that Bourne volunteered. He volunteered for what he thought was an honorable noble and patriotic task. To serve his country. To save American lives. In Supremacy, Bourne further discovers how these activities extend beyond saving American lives to meddling in international political and economic affairs.
Thus, Bourne’s amnesia could represent something of a loss of American conscience, morality and leadership in the world, a fallen patriotism, that has committed questionable acts in the name of patriotism. And his journey of discovery is a sobering one. Now, patriotism itself need not be a bad thing or an evil to be repressed if wisely lived out, if patriotism is a force for actual good, rather than subjective good. Some people will criticize such ideas in movies using phrases like liberal propaganda, anti-American, not patriotic. And Damon’s Green Zone may have copped some similar criticism, highlighting American intelligence or political failures in the events leading up to the Iraq war.
Let history decide. Right or wrong, propaganda or not, these movies are confronting: while we probably prefer to not think about what goes on in the complex world of national security and intelligence services, we equally don’t like the idea of admitting our mistakes. We prefer to justify our actions.
The one thing that is common to all of us as we watch these kinds of stories unfold, not only on the big screen but as public and private failures are revealed, is that none of us likes to have our misdeeds exposed. Jesus knew the heart of man when he said:
“And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.”
He was first speaking about the fractured relationship between man and God, but his general assessment of humanity rings true with our experience. But with the truth, with reflection and remorse comes the opportunity to come clean and make a new start, whether it be in our relationship with God, with those closest to us or in the public sphere. Those who come clean with their dirty laundry have the opportunity to admit wrongdoing, repent, ask forgiveness, perhaps re-establish trust and transparency and progress, for the good of all concerned.
Now the world is more fractured than it was when the Bourne series started; we’ve seen more terror and violence and bloodshed. All the more, we need to act with morality, with compassion and with humility. All the more, we need to be redeemed from the private and public lies that bind us. For those seeking personal transformation, the Gospel says that even though we have fallen, the One who knows us better than we know ourselves offers us renewal – a new identity – in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Rather than hiding and running in the shadows.