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It was the first confirmed sighting of Jason Bourne in almost eight years. A recently released photograph showed Matt Damon getting into character on the set of the new Bourne film, as yet untitled. He’s shirtless and conspicuously ripped, strapping up his knuckles like a prizefighter, gaunter and tougher-looking than in the original trilogy. Older too, if that doesn’t go without saying.

Now in his mid-’40s, Damon first took the title role in The Bourne Identity when he was barely 30. Back then he still seemed a callow, preppy young gentleman of Harvard, an unlikely choice to play a lethal super-spy in a new adaptation of Robert Ludlum’s trashy Cold War bestseller. In hindsight, he was perfectly cast. Knocking out two Zurich beat cops on sheer reflex, evading a whole embassy guard of U.S. marines, disabling a highly trained and heavily armed opponent with a household ballpoint pen — Damon settled any doubt that he could handle the physical stuff.

Watching the latter fight scene in the context of a very different film, Paul Rudd spoke for millions of duly chastened moviegoers. “I always thought Matt Damon was kind of a Streisand,” says Rudd’s character in The 40-Year-Old Virgin, as The Bourne Identity plays on a bank of big-screen TVs. “But he’s rocking the shit in this one.” Damon’s peculiar American blankness also turned out to fit the profile of a patriotic U.S. soldier turned black-ops agent turned conscience-stricken amnesiac. From 2002 to 2007, the actor’s visible aging through the sequels seemed to mirror the wear and tear on Bourne’s body and psyche as he literally fought to remember things he would prefer to forget.

The plot(s) hurtled forward while the protagonist tracked backward to his personal ground zero. The last time we saw him, at the end of The Bourne Ultimatum, he had taken a dive off the roof of a Manhattan skyscraper into New York’s East River. Memory recovered, identity restored, but safety and liberty far from guaranteed, he was swimming away to an uncertain future.

With the trilogy complete, critic Manohla Dargis — then writing for the Los Angeles Times — smartly outlined its evolving philosophical thrust. The Bourne Identity had been propelled by the most basic existential inquiry: “Who am I?” The Bourne Supremacy was driven by a moral interrogative: “What did I do?” And The Bourne Ultimatum raised the question of redemption: “How can I escape what I am?” Since he never really arrived at an answer, the next film may simply ask again, more urgently.

One reason for the relative disappointment of The Bourne Legacy, that curious, Damonless parallel-sequel/quasi-spinoff from 2012, was its failure to find an equally compelling question for the new guy, Aaron Cross, who could only keep asking: “Where are my chems?” The sub rosa military training scheme that produced Bourne and his fellow “assets” — an executive euphemism for “assassins” — was now revealed to have a pharmaceutical component. The secret of their enhanced performance was apparently a top-drawer doping regimen: blue pills to boost cognitive functions, green for speed, strength, and stamina. Cross, played by Jeremy Renner, had been sub-normal, IQ-wise, before his induction into the programme. So, his motivation through The Bourne Legacy was to gobble down enough of those “chems” that he could keep his superpowers forever, like a junkie Captain America.

There was something undignified about it, and the retroactive notion of Jason Bourne going cold turkey — his plight reverse-engineered into a struggle with withdrawal symptoms and side effects — threatened to drain the earlier movies of potency. For many fans, myself included, this seemed especially confounding because the man who wrote the first three films had also directed the fourth one. Tony Gilroy wasn’t some hack for hire, but the so-called “narrative architect” of the whole franchise. And if Identity, Supremacy, and Ultimatum are now generally accepted as modern genre classics, they remain a little undervalued in terms of storytelling. Gilroy himself has never been shy about saying so.

Initially consulted by producer-director Doug Liman for his opinion on an early draft of the Identity script, he dismissed it as a “15-gunmen-on-the-Metro-blowing-fuck-out-of-everything-movie”. Then commissioned to write his own draft, he stripped out the standard action film conventions and the sillier throwback elements from Robert Ludlum’s batshit 1980 source novel, in which Jason Bourne was a foreign-service officer targeted for assassination by the CIA and Carlos the Jackal (who was then still at large in the real world and heavily mythologised in manly pulp fiction).

“Those works were never meant to be filmed,” Gilroy later told The New Yorker. “They weren’t about human behaviour. They were about running to airports.” In a letter to Matt Damon, he pitched his own approach to the material as a kind of playbook that would define the series: “Action with intimacy. Emotional credibility. Exotic locations treated in a completely non-glamorous way. Molecularly real people thrust into a heightened realm.”

Damon went in for all of this, and Doug Liman too. Still regarded as a fresh and fashionable talent after directing Swingers and Go, Liman didn’t want to turn out anonymous Hollywood dreck any more than the writer or star did. Family history made him especially keen to ground his first big-budget, high-concept movie in the down and dirty workings of U.S. security culture — his father Arthur Liman was a prominent attorney who helped prosecute senior figures from the Reagan administration for their roles in the Iran-Contra affair. Bourne’s CIA handler in the film, a baleful bureaucratic hawk played by Chris Cooper, was apparently informed by Liman Sr.’s memories of Oliver North.

But if everyone was on the same page at the beginning, they weren’t after more than a year of non-stop rewrites and reshoots; escalating tension between Liman and the studio; outright hostility between Liman and Gilroy. Chris Cooper later described it as “an actor’s nightmare”. Flying out to shoot his scenes Prague without a working script, he had to wait around on set for new pages to be faxed through. His lines, when they came, were filled with Gilroy’s premium-grade technical jargon, which Cooper then had almost no time to learn.“I’m just so surprised it went as well as it did,” he told an interviewer, years after that near-calamitous production had somehow resulted in a coherent, confident movie, and a major sleeper hit.

Doug Liman made no small contribution to its success.The Bourne Identity had been his project from the start, and the end product bore clear traces of his signature in its youthful energy and indie sensibility, its sympathetic notes of romance under duress, its minor-key approach to major set-pieces. But, by some accounts, he was effectively fired even before he could deliver a finished cut, and subsequently blocked from directing the sequels.

“I lost my baby,” Liman has since said of the franchise, though he retained an executive producer credit and was still invested long after the fact. In 2008, he participated in a Bourne-related panel discussion at MoMA in New York, where the neuroscientist Dr. Giulio Tononi suggested a deeper reason for the first film’s appeal. According to Tononi, audiences had responded almost unconsciously to the character’s condition. We recognised in Jason Bourne the phantom non-selves that we all wake up to every morning, for those few liminal moments when we can’t remember who we are. What if that fog never lifted, and we forgot ourselves entirely? A frightening thought but also something of a fantasy, especially if we were compensated with extraordinary abilities, an attractive new companion, a sackful of cash, and a chance to start again with little or no memory of past transgressions.

Tony Gilroy, for his part, felt that he went too easy on Bourne in Identity, and let the viewers off too lightly by extension. The first film had indeed been a little fuzzy on the character’s previous employment as an extra-judicial executioner for a clandestine wing of the U.S. government. The screenplay allowed him to keep killing pursuers and attackers in self-defense while claiming genuine ignorance of his own ultra-violent history on the somewhat dubious grounds of severe psychogenic retrograde amnesia. By the end, all Bourne could recall was the inciting incident of the whole story: his sudden, mid-mission refusal to assassinate a deposed African dictator, presented in flashback as a circuit-frying surge of guilt and self-disgust that seemed to wipe his mind clean.

Conceiving the sequel as a moral corrective, Gilroy now wanted to make clear that our hero was no hero at all. Neither was he an anti-hero in the manner of those action movies and video games that increasingly use terms like “hitman” to evoke awesomeness — trigger-words for badass scenes of double-fisted gunplay and graphic killshots viewed through sniper scopes.

No: this man was and is a multiple murderer.

Supremacy begins with a bullet intended for Bourne’s head hitting his girlfriend Marie. As played by Franka Potente, Marie had been a reluctant accomplice, then a fellow fugitive, then a willing partner-in-hiding. She was, essentially, his only source of light, and her death jogs loose his darkest memory. For his inaugural “black-on-black” assignment under the codename Jason Bourne, he was sent to kill a Russian politician, and had shot the man’s wife dead too — both innocent, unarmed civilians, their corpses hastily arranged to make the scene look like a murder-suicide.

He had since done similar things who knows how many times. Now galvanised by grief and remorse, his eventual reckoning is not with the mercenary who took Marie from him, nor the oil and gas oligarch who put out the contract on his life, nor the corrupt CIA chief who has misused him from the start. Bourne’s pell-mell trajectory only glances off these confrontations en route a terse, muted, mutually excruciating encounter with the daughter of his first victims in a dingy Moscow housing project, where Bourne can barely find the words to explain and apologise before limping out alone into the snow. And this is where the film was supposed to end, before the late addition of a coda in which Bourne somehow turns up in New York and finally discovers his real name: David Webb of Nixa, Missouri.

That last-minute tweak, added just before the film’s release in July 2004, bumped the preview test scores by 10 points, and would later serve as a pretty ingenious narrative bridge to Ultimatum. But it also slightly blunted the cold and melancholy edge of that superior middle chapter — a wintry Dostoevskian parable in the guise of a summer blockbuster. To this writer’s mind, The Bourne Supremacy remains the best and boldest of the series, a masterpiece of mainstream cinema, and among the most subversive American movies of this century so far.

If it wasn’t recognised as such at the time, and is not really remembered that way eleven years after the fact, that might be because the camera was moving around so much. “Shakycam” they called it — those detractors of director Paul Greengrass who claimed to suffer motion sickness induced by his handheld, run-and-gun approach to shooting fight sequences, foot chases, even relatively static scenes of dialogue. The second movie earned slightly more money and marginally better reviews, but plenty of viewers and critics stated a clear preference for Doug Liman’s comparatively forgiving pop-classical technique. Tony Gilroy was on their side by default.

Having complained that Liman had “no sense of story, of cause and effect”, the screenwriter took against his replacement with twice the dramatic animus, accusing Greengrass of “crimes against the gods of storytelling”. Gilroy’s screenplay had drawn on Eastern and Western traditions to describe a striking arc for the title character — “a samurai’s journey of atonement” — and he felt it could and should have been “The Searchers of action films”. Even avid fans like myself wouldn’t quite claim it to be that. John Ford and Akira Kurosawa, both painterly directors who used tripods as easels, would almost certainly have puked into their hats if they watched more than two minutes of The Bourne Supremacy.

Greengrass came out of a different school — an Englishman who’d only worked in British television to that point. Starting out as a producer on the now-defunct documentary strand World In Action, his hero and role model was the TV and film director Alan Clarke, whose affectless, unsettling portraits of sectarian violence and soccer hooliganism (Elephant, Contact, The Firm) taught him to be “anonymous, subversive, compassionate [and] moral” behind the camera. When he moved on to make features, he adopted Clarke’s maxim as his own: “It’s all in the looks and the movement.”

Through the 1990s, Greengrass came to specialise in heavily researched, lightly dramatised reconstructions of infamous real-life incidents from the recent political past. The failed SAS Bravo Two Zero mission during the first Gulf War. The racist murder of London teenager Stephen Lawrence. And Bloody Sunday, also known as the Bogside Massacre, that still-resounding military snafu in Derry, Northern Ireland, where paratroopers fired live rounds into a crowd of civil rights marchers on January 30, 1972, killing 13. Made for TV in the UK, Bloody Sunday was released theatrically in the U.S., and Tony Gilroy himself had recommended Greengrass to Matt Damon after seeing it.

Perhaps he expected the director to stabilise his camera for the purposes of a tentpole Hollywood sequel. Instead, Greengrass made cinéma vérité out of Gilroy’s screenplay for The Bourne Supremacy. And if it seemed to the writer that the style only blurred or fudged the substance, to some eyes they seemed perfectly in focus — a whirl of visual information synced to Bourne’s hyper-alertness, smashed to pieces in the edit and reassembled for maximum impact. Hectic as it felt, the direction was precise, even pointillist, every frame a split-second dot in the complete picture. Watching the film’s centrepiece fistfight in a Munich apartment, or its climactic car chase across Moscow’s ring roads, you were seeing those events covered like reportage while also rendered as a kind of abstract expressionism. The effect was such that you could feel it in your heart and lungs (and, yes, maybe your stomach too).

Greengrass’s tactics were so influential as to soon become standard in action filmmaking, though few imitators could replicate his control over chaos, merely flinging the camera around and cutting like crazy. For a blatant case in point, see Marc Forster’s shoddy Bourne-indebted Bond movie Quantum of Solace, which also headhunted Supremacy’s master stunt co-ordinator Dan Bradley.

There’s no denying or avoiding the awkward relationship between the two spies and their respective franchises. The link goes back to Robert Ludlum, who explicitly designed his character as an American answer to Ian Fleming’s, right down to the initials. But Paul Greengrass was no less explicit about wanting to disfigure the resemblance. In interviews he expressed outright contempt for James Bond as a lackey of the establishment. “The films can be entertaining,” he said, “but their values I spit on, if I’m honest.” The Platonic ideal of 007, as embodied by Sean Connery, had been a state-sponsored killing machine in the shape of a sharply-dressed man. As personified by Matt Damon, Jason Bourne became his moral opposite — the machine gone haywire, resisting its programming, reverting to scrappy humanity.

Daniel Craig’s incarnation splits the difference. Since Casino Royale, which followed The Bourne Supremacy by two years and copied many of its moves (Eva Green’s death scene in the former is a sub-aquatic echo of Franka Potente’s in the latter), Bond has been presented as damaged, haunted, and scowlingly ambivalent about his work. The latest film, Spectre, continues the series’ newfound interest in his early life, as the highfalutin British stage-and-screen director Sam Mendes unpacks the character’s psychological baggage. This leafing back through the personnel file was fairly obviously prompted by Bourne’s example, though Daniel Craig has said the new-model Bond was just as much a delayed reaction to the Austin Powers films, which left Eon Productions no option but to redress their spy’s long decline into parody. That said, the SPECTRE of the title is not much less rococo than the global criminal syndicate of Ian Fleming’s novels. For all the sweat and blood pumped into recent installments, Bond will always smell of expensive cologne, his world separated from ours by a sheen of magazine glamour and a lingering quantum of sci-fi.

The Bourne films, by contrast, seemed to rotate ever closer to our plane of physical and political reality. Identity (released the same year as Pierce Brosnan’s last and least effort as 007, Die Another Day), still felt a little far out, with its secret microfilm implants and futuristic bank vaults and cryptic hints of experimental mind control. The 9/11 attacks had occurred late in production, and amid the re-shoots a new coda was added that obliquely referred to those events. Weirdly, that sequence only heightened the impression that all of this was happening in a slightly alternate spy-movie universe. The effect was jarring and the ending was dropped (you can still see it among the deleted scenes on most editions of the DVD).

But Supremacy was emphatically set on this prosaic planet in the year 2004, smack-bang in the middle of the Bush era. It played out against an utterly quotidian backdrop of busy Asian beach resorts and corporatized European cities, where unilateral security operations were being mishandled by omnipotent yet incompetent public servants with suspicious links to the private sector. It did not seem too much of a stretch to imagine Bourne’s story running concurrently with the first and second battles of Fallujah.

Tony Gilroy’s script had doubled down on his “keep it real” manifesto from the first movie, while dialling back his flair for fork-tongued boardroom doublespeak (witness Al Pacino’s bellowing of Gilroy’s lines as a Trump-inflected Satan in The Devil’s Advocate) to a witty, chilling pitch of plausibility. “I think you may have wandered a little past your pay grade,” warned Brian Cox’s malign spook when questioned on policy by Joan Allen’s forthright CIA middle-manager, sounding for all the world like Dick Cheney.

Paul Greengrass added in his own layers of verisimilitude. On a micro level, it was perversely thrilling to see Bourne rely so frantically on public transport rather than, say, a wickedly modified Aston Martin. One major suspense sequence hinged on an S-Bahn train departing Berlin’s Freidrichstrasse Station a few seconds behind the timetable that he actually took the trouble to check while fleeing from armed police.

On the macro level, the film had something of the texture of 21st century life. Even transitional scenes of Bourne moving through crowds or driving at night on sodium-lit motorways seemed to vibrate with the same anxiety, confusion, and dislocation that a listener might pick up from latter-day Radiohead albums. John Powell’s score was absolutely on this wavelength, with its mournful signature bassoon refrain winding through ominous, bass-heavy electronic ostinatos like a red ribbon snagged in the treads of a tank.

(It’s worth noting that Powell refuses to make music for movies that, in his view, “don’t bring anything good into the world”. According to his friend and fellow composer Hans Zimmer, Powell’s soundtracks are “underpinned, if not inspired by, a solid moral stance.”)

Credit, like blame, is notoriously tricky to parse from the collaborative and antagonistic process of commercial filmmaking, and it’s never easy to get a precise fix on exactly who or what transmutes a piece of craft into a work of art. Any number of other talents were surely instrumental in this case: from Powell and the aforementioned stunt co-ordinator Dan Bradley to fight choreographer Jeff Imada, cinematographer Oliver Wood, editors Richard Pearson and Christopher Rouse.

Gilroy was the only named screenwriter, but it’s now fairly well known that at least one uncredited script doctor, Brian Helgeland, submitted major rewrites as late as four days before shooting began. It’s even possible that Helgeland was the true and secret author of Supremacy’s unsung greatness, but his screenplay for Greengrass’s later film Green Zone suggests otherwise — an absolute fiasco that failed in every way to make a viable action thriller of the real-life hunt for WMDs in Iraq circa 2003.

New Yorker critic Anthony Lane memorably described Green Zone as a “left-wing movie that looks and sounds like a right-wing one.” The same could be said of Greengrass’s United 93 — a docudrama that drew on cellphone transcripts, official testimony, and select findings of The 9/11 Commission Report to suppose what must have or might have happened aboard that eponymous aircraft on September 11. Liberals and conservatives might equally lay opposing claim to Captain Phillips, his more recent film about the Somali pirate hijack of the Maersk Alabama cargo ship in early 2009. Since The Bourne Supremacy, Greengrass has developed into an odd sort of auteur, continuing his British TV work on much bigger American screens, applying his distinctive technique to nominally true stories — some so fresh in the public memory that they’re still too raw for many viewers to digest.

His style seems to work against his movies as often as it does in their favour, the shifting, jittering camera blurring their moral purpose and making their politics difficult to read. Was Captain Phillips — the film, not the man — on the side of the deprived and desperate pirates, or the fearsome U.S. Navy SEALs who so spectacularly overmatched them? Both, may have been Greengrass’s preferred answer as a former journalist. Or neither.

The casting of Tom Hanks in the title role was surely a clue, marking out the middle ground of the perpetual American everyman caught between historic forces. That celebrated final scene, as Hanks credibly acted out the physiological symptoms of post-traumatic shock, was perhaps the clearest expression of an awareness that rings through Greengrass’s Hollywood career like a fire alarm: what movies present as action, the real world experiences as violence.

At the same time, his “non-fiction” movies can also seem like crude, schematic interpretations of actual events that leave no breathing space for mystery or poetry. The comparative richness of The Bourne Supremacy only underlines his need for a writer like Gilroy, which is not to say that Gilroy has since proven infallible either. He agreed to script The Bourne Ultimatum on the condition that he would not have any contact with Greengrass, and his draft was apparently somewhat tossed-off and half-assed. Matt Damon later called it “a career-ender . . . unreadable . . . terrible . . . embarrassing . . . ” (before apologising and semi-retracting).

Scott Burns and George Nolfi were brought in to sort out the screenplay, but the finished film seemed to get by on pure kinetics. In place of a story there was one long chase, as Greengrass offset second-sequel entropy by upping the tempo, building momentum, increasing the gravity load. Political points were made on the fly, as Bourne evaded rival agents deployed by a Rumsfeldian Homeland Security zealot (David Strathairn), and pinballed between urban flashpoints that had recently been targets for major scale Al-Qaeda attacks — London, Madrid, New York City.

It was genuinely exhilarating, perhaps even more so than the previous two installments, and much more than the Marvel movies that have since come to dominate the summer release slates. Non-stop, high-stakes action has become incredibly boring these days, and maybe the Bourne films worked so well because the stakes remained so low. He wasn’t racing to save the world, but only his own soul.

By the end of the third one we learned, as he did, that before Jason Bourne the super-spy there was Captain David Webb the regular soldier. That patriotic Midwestern boy had volunteered for further service, only to be brutalised and weaponized by fanatics and profiteers who waterboard and execute their own people, whose spectrum of enemies and victims includes fellow American citizens.

But the tragedy of this, and the trenchancy, got a bit lost in the excitement. Behind-the-scenes hurly-burly seems as much a hallmark of the franchise as high-tech surveillance and high-speed pursuits, and Ultimatum felt a little rushed. One or two more drafts of the screenplay might have repaired some of the logical lapses and finessed that final reversal. “Look at us,” said Bourne, or rather Webb, to a fellow graduate of the same program, repeating the dying words of another fallen “asset” from the first movie. “Look at what they make you give.”

And that was the last we heard of him, unless you count the sideways references in The Bourne Legacy, as written and directed by Tony Gilroy. Finally in control of the story and the telling, the “narrative architect” of the series worked out some elegant solutions to the problem of the title character’s absence. Gilroy set the plot on a parallel track with the events of Ultimatum, putting Bourne himself just out of sight in the corner of security camera monitors.

He made the substitute protagonist kind of a Chatty Cathy, Jeremy Renner playing Aaron Cross as affable and easygoing where Damon had been increasingly taciturn. He purported to expose the whole show this time, the hard science behind the shadowy process of turning men like Webb and Kenneth Kitsom (Cross’s real name) into optimal delivery systems for deadly force. Gilroy did his research, and the stuff with the green and blue pills wasn’t quite as goofy as it sounded — emerging bio-tech really can effect chromosomal changes and genomic alterations through viral manipulation. But that didn’t give the fourth film a reason to exist.

And now comes this fifth one, from the opposite side of the schism in the franchise. For years, Damon and Greengrass have each said that they would not make a new Bourne movie without the other. Neither seemed all that interested, until suddenly they were.

As those new photos emerged from the set, Damon claimed that they’d been waiting for the world to change. The actor’s liberalism can be taken as read at this point, and his partnership with this particular director seems predicated on a shared view of U.S. foreign policy. If the original Bourne trilogy came to stand as a vigorous pop-cultural objection to the Bush presidency, this belated update (The Bourne Addendum?) has reportedly been tailored to the age of Obama. Damon himself helped to work out the story with Greengrass and long-serving series editor Christopher Rouse.

“Without giving too much away,” Damon told Buzzfeed, “it’s Bourne through an austerity-riddled Europe, in a post-Snowden world. There are all these kinds of arguments about spying and civil liberties . . . ” He went on to reveal that the movie will begin in Greece, the cradle of democracy, and end in the Nevada desert, from where U.S. Air Force bases launch remote drone strikes on far-distant targets.

Greece is the birthplace of philosophy too and, politics aside, this viewer wonders what line of inquiry David Webb is following now, after eight more years on the run. Presumably he still has family back in Nixa, Missouri. My guess is, he’s asking the same simple question that might escape the lips of any tired and wounded soldier, and that Edward Snowden surely repeats like a prayer before bedtime: “Please, can I go home now?”


Stephen Phelan is an Irish writer living in Madrid. His nonfiction has appeared in The Believer and The Boston Review.

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