The Bourne Ultimatum

Reprinted from EXPLORING THE MEDIA – TEXT, INDUSTRY, AUDIENCE. Ed Barbara Connell

The Bourne Ultimatum and the Bourne trilogy: Genre’ – repetition,
variation and hybridity

 The Bourne trilogy of films provides an interesting example of this balance between industry and audience needs. Even though some of the standard conventions of the action genre are still present for audiences to enjoy, the Bourne films demonstrate several departures from mainstream Hollywood action movie conventions. For example, ·the films appear far more aware of international politics than many traditional action films, and, they appear to integrate action into the narrative in a plausible way without the overuse of CGI which has become a recognised signifier of so many action films.

Clearly the Bourne trilogy represents a hybrid version of the action genre, an increasingly common approach in many contemporary Hollywood genre films. Marketed as a ‘Bond for a new generation’, the Bourne trilogy combines elements from the action/spectacle/adventure and thriller genres, with elements from the political conspiracy and espionage thriller. These various elements are densely packed into the Bourne films to produce a multi-layered style of film-making, which is somewhat different from a conventional Hollywood action film like Die Hard 4.

You can see hybridity as well as a repetition and variation of conventions in the suspense sequence set at Waterloo Station in The Bourne Ultimatum. The sequence, which crosscuts from Waterloo Station to CIA surveillance headquarters in New York, features a number of standard conventions of the action and thriller genres including the use of characters, narrative, mise-en-scene, camerawork/editing and sound.

A set of conventions/expectations, such as the one below, can provide a useful framework for analysis and help you gain a fuller understanding of a scene, in this case the way The Bourne Ultimatum uses genre conventions.

  • Characters – a hero, a villain, the villain’s accomplice and a victim.
  • Narrative – a plot involving political intrigue, a mystery to uncover, an international dimension, usually based in the recognisable present.
  • Mise-en-scene – a location which offers ample possibilities for putting the hero at risk.
  • Camerawork – varied camerawork featuring spectacular action, usually involving weapons and death-defying stunts.
  • Editing – rapid intercutting between key locations and people, to increase audience tension and suspense.
  • Sound design – a suspenseful orchestral musical score.

The sequence contrasts the mise-en-scene of the CIA offices in New York, essentially the ‘hub’ of all surveillance operations, with the rendezvous of Bourne and reporter Ross amidst numerous commuters in Waterloo station. The scenes inside the CIA offices are filmed with a handheld camera, which is unusual for a Hollywood action movie, although the use of close-ups on Vosen representing pressure is more conventional. These offices are appropriately shadowy (for dark deeds), dominated by traditionally masculine colours of black, brown, blue and grey, with no natural Light; their faces are lit by the overhead strip lighting, desk lights and the reflections of the many computer screens, monitors and projector screens that crowd the office.

The theme of surveillance, more conventional of the conspiracy or espionage thriller, is evident in the cinematography. The sequence in Waterloo station uses shots from every conceivable angle, including aerial and low angle, wide and close as well as master shots to retain an overview so that the audience can see the geography of the sequence. The camera is dynamic, almost a narrative element within the sequence itself, with fast zooms in and out, tracks and pans to follow Bourne and Ross, It peeps from behind bars and glass, giving us fleeting glimpses of the action, as Bourne systematically eliminates the mobile teams following Ross, so increasing tension.

The editing is conventional for an action movie in that it creates intense excitement through the pacy rhythm of successive shots. Too much pace can impede narrative clarity, so the editing tempo is varied to ensure that the audience is generally clear about who is who and what is happening. However, the tempo of transitions in this and many scenes in The Bourne Ultimatum is higher than in most films, meaning the audience experiences the dizzying rush of the chase, whilst just about following the course of events. This is especially important when a new threat, the assassin Paz, is introduced into the mix. It is almost as if Bourne is the director here, calling the ‘shots’, as he directs Ross’s every movement around the station, while the team in the CIA offices can only watch passively on their screens, like the audience itself.

As such the film uses a recognisable set of conventions but does so in a way to breathe life into a scene we have seen many times before.

The sound design faithfully recreates the echo and background noise of the cavernous train station and amplifies the click and clunk of every closing car door and a cold metallic graze of steel on steel in the assembly and loading of weapons, and when combat is involved, we hear every crunch of bone with clinical clarity. When Paz’s bullet finds its target in Ross’s skull, all sound stops very briefly to mark the moment. Then the final part of this chase sequence commences, with Bourne pursuing Paz through the station into the underground to the serpentine rhythms of Arabic-style music, anticipating the later chase sequence in Tunisia. High-quality sound design has become a feature of Hollywood blockbusters, reflecting audience expectations and technological progress.

Genre and issues of representation in The Bourne Ultimatum

A central aspect of the narrative of The Bourne Ultimatum is a challenging representation of the US Government and its practices. This is largely presented as a binary opposition between the negatively represented US authorities and the positively represented Jason Bourne, an individual searching for the identity which was stripped from him under questionable circumstances.

The basic opposition of an individual versus an organisation is conventional of the action movie. It helps the audience identify with the underdog who uses their individual traits of courage and resourcefulness to triumph despite the odds. In films such as the Die Hard franchise the individual hero represents good – meaning they embody American values and thus offer audiences reassurance in the form of a happy ending in which they defeat some foreign threat. However, contemporary thrillers have become increasingly critical of the US government reflecting the audience’s lack of faith in the morality of our leaders and institutions, Jason Bourne is an action hero but one caught up in conflict with the shadowy institutions of his own country rather than with terrorists from another. A close look at the binary oppositions contained in film texts allows us to examine the ideology of films and in this case observe how films go some way to reflecting the attitudes of audiences at a specific time in history.

The use of camerawork and mise-en-scene in all three films underline this negative representation of the US authorities, who act as if they are above the law and beyond accountability, Tracking shots represent sinister; silver-haired CIA staff barking orders at stressed junior operatives, And the flashback sequences, which portray Bourne’s returning memories of his initial programming process, similarly represent government agencies harshly. These sequences, which feature Bourne in handcuffs, head covered by a black hood and repeatedly plunged into a water tank to the point of drowning, reference the many images of hooded and humiliated prisoners at Abu Ghraib. Not only do these representations challenge and criticise government methods, they gain added force by drawing on images of well-known, illegal interrogation methods portraying the US Government as a repressive force, The blurred and grainy CCTV shots which follow Bourne across Europe to the US in streets, banks and petrol stations, on trains and in the subway reinforce the portrayal of governments as repressive forces – reflecting the increasing level of surveillance within Western societies and thus making an ideological point and reflecting the fact that,

Generic codes and conventions give a preferred reading’ (Hayward, 1996, pl64).

Of course different audiences may interpret the film in a variety of ways. The preferred reading outlined above may not appeal to all audiences. Clearly the film can also be enjoyed in more simple terms. The spectacle of an individual hero overcoming a series of elaborate and life-threatening obstacles to complete his quest offers pleasure for audiences who might not necessarily buy into the film’s underlying ideology.

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