With The Bourne Ultimatum, the third in a series of paranoid thrillers about an amnesiac ex–CIA agent (Matt Damon) with lightning reflexes and a knack for eluding (or dismantling) teams of expert assassins, it’s time to designate a new genre of motion picture: the motion-sickness picture. The stately static camera, the limpid tracking shot: old-hat, squaresville. Now films (and TV shows, even comedies) are shot documentary style, with handheld cameras transmitting the operators’ jitters, twitches, and sudden swerves. It’s not just vérité—it’s battlefield vérité; it triggers your fight-or-flight instincts. I know people who came out of The Blair Witch Project thinking they had food poisoning. Others had to move to the last row of seats to make it through the second Bourne picture, The Bourne Supremacy. For the new one, they’ll need Dramamine.
The motion-sick mise-en-scène is artistically defensible—to a point. Bourne, who moves from one (picturesque) European capital to another, is permanently disoriented and on guard: Death might come at any time, in any form, from any direction. He looks as if he hasn’t slept with both eyes closed in years. In the first film, The Bourne Identity, he still had a touch of ingenuousness. When his body acted independently—when he found he could shoot, stab, karate chop, strangle, and break the necks of attackers without formally making his mind up to do so—he observed his virtuosity with wonderment. By now, he has grimly come to terms with his lethal weaponhood. His aim in The Bourne Ultimatum is to find out who he is and why he was engineered to be someone else. It’s not that he wants to start a family or see his old mom and dad. Having lost his love (Franka Potente) in Supremacy, he’s driven by vengeance—what soft spots he had have been tanned to leather. He wants to activate the CIA’s fight-or-flight instincts. It’s time for motion sickness all around.
Bourne has an excellent foil in a new character, Noah Vosen (David Strathairn), head of a CIA “black-ops” program called Blackbriar. He’s a boob, but a boob with the niftiest surveillance technology, a green light to assassinate anyone who might expose him, and the Nixonian certainty that everyone wants to. Being cast as Ed Murrow was the best thing that ever happened to Strathairn. He was always good but a little lightweight. Now he has gravitas Americanas. When the cool, sensible, Bourne-ophilic Pamela Landy (Joan Allen) tells Vosen he doesn’t have the authority to kill another CIA agent, Strathairn rises up on his high horse and sputters, “Oh yes I do!” And it’s obvious he’s right: He has an A-list ham’s executive privilege.
The most fun sections of The Bourne Ultimatum are when Bourne pulls fast (really fast) ones and Vosen does his Elmer Fudd eruptions. There’s a dazzling sequence in a London train station—where Bourne goes to meet a clueless journalist (Paddy Considine)—with a vertiginous number of variables, with Bourne evading agents, an “asset” (the code name for an assassin), British police, and a myriad of microphones and cameras beaming images and voices to the CIA. (In this movie, even agents’ guns have cameras.) Now we’re ducking in and out of the crowd with Bourne. Now we’re back at CIA headquarters watching banks of video screens—a slew of little shaking, veering, zooming images inside one big shaking, veering, zooming image. Bourne has better sea legs than Vosen and his team; fans of 24 will be amazed to find a hero who makes Jack Bauer seem like a study in sissydom. When Strathairn’s Vosen explains a failure with “Decisions in real time are never perfect,” he’s flaunting his inadequacy; Jason Bourne’s are.
The movie is excitingly well done—yet it’s hard to get excited about the movie. Damon has turned Bourne into an extension of his Will Hunting—the working-class superman standing up to the heartless elites who want to grind him down (or, in this case, take him out). But Bourne is too hooded (and too physically indestructible) to feel much for; the only emotion he allows himself is smugness when he outwits someone. The potential love interest—Julia Stiles as CIA operative Nicky Parsons—is just as emotionally tamped-down. If The Bourne Ultimatum didn’t trigger your neurotoxins, it might put you to sleep.
As with The Bourne Supremacy, the director is Paul Greengrass, who perfected his faux-documentary syntax in Bloody Sunday (2002), the story of the 1972 Northern Ireland civil-rights march that exploded into a massacre. In that film, the you-are-there approach made brilliant artistic and moral sense: You understood the historical forces in play; you also understood at least something of what it felt like to be in the middle of the melee. In United 93, he used the same techniques to re-create the events of 9/11 onboard the only plane that didn’t hit its target. His aims weren’t quite as clear as in Bloody Sunday, but the movie worked as journalism and (arguably) therapy. He took an event that many of us could barely bring ourselves to imagine and gave it form.
I loved watching The Bourne Supremacy and might have loved The Bourne Ultimatum if I didn’t, by now, know all Greengrass’s moves—and if I weren’t so sick of being motion-sick. The on-the-fly documentary style was first employed in fiction films to say, “This is different. In exchange for a handheld camera’s limited vantage, you’ll get the texture of a real place and the urgency of real time.” Seeing someone like Greengrass, whose work had moral authority in Bloody Sunday, use the same techniques so promiscuously, to make the bone crunching crunchier, drives home the bitter truth. “Reality” is virtual—just another tool for bludgeoning you stupid.