Let it never be said that you can’t track a nation’s attitude by its cinema. Whether by proliferation or absence, topics are either brought to attention, or trigger groundswell when they’re not (#oscarssowhite). They sink or swim; fade in and out. Post-war escapism in musicals faded into seventies horror, developed into nineties romantic comedy, and evolved into 21st century superheroes, marking out a path to show just how much the world has changed.
Accountability is skyrocketing in the real world, with the Establishment no longer so established that it can escape criticism. The deployment and conduct of undercover officers by the Metropolitan Police was brought into the light, revealing that officers had spied on Doreen Lawrence and had children with targeted activists. The Chilcot Report into the Iraq War condemned Tony Blair both to legal action and lifelong censure; MI6 was publicly embarrassed by its reliance on flawed intelligence. Caught up in this evolving attitude, the cinematic spy has left behind his exploding pens and Aston Martins for a colder, more fragile existence. Even James Bond, that carefree champion of cheap puns and silly gadgets, has had a 21st century facelift, thanks in no small part to the new kid on the block: Jason Bourne.
The convergence of technology, transparency and terrorism in the late ’90s and early 2000s culminated in an event that was marked by all three. There was worldwide fallout; the economy crashed and it was the man on the street who suffered. The difficult birth of the 21st century created an audience that no longer accepted blind faith in its government agencies and the men who worked for them; suddenly, men like Bond and the trust we placed in them became throwbacks. Die Another Day, released in 2002, suffered criticism for exactly that reliance on gadgets and outlandish SFX. Even Roger Moore – whose rendition of Bond appeared in a luxury floating sea capsule, in the arms of his Bond girl, “keeping the British end up” oo-er, etcetera – opined that it had gone “too far”. Despite a $431m box office, Die Another Day marked the end of Bond as we knew him and lead back to the drawing board for ‘gritty reboot’ Casino Royale. The audience had had their fill.
It cannot be coincidence that only five months earlier, those same audiences were given a credible alternative candidate. Originally scheduled for release in September 2001 (and providentially prevented from doing so by reshoots and delays), The Bourne Identity looked forward where Bond had begun to look back. The enemy wasn’t on the outside – Bond favourites like the KGB, the FSB, South Korea, China all thrown to the wayside – but within. Espionage has always traded on secrets and lies, but the trust of its people had been absolute, whether it was for Queen and country or the stars and stripes. Now, with the world in a tailspin, such loyalty could be questioned – and Jason Bourne did exactly that.
For Bourne, life is nothing but questions – who am I, where am I from, what have I done – turning his literal into his audience’s metaphorical. Where before the cinematic spy genre was a comforting gatekeeper, taking the audience outside of themselves with its supervillains and giant volcano lairs, these days the spy has become the man in the mirror. The Bourne franchise lives in the minutiae, in car interiors and stairwells and windowless incident rooms; the grand sweeping narrative of rancid politics and global degeneration reduced down to four walls and the men and women inside them. For Bourne, and for his audience, the Good Guys are the bad guys and the Bad Guys aren’t great either. It’s a trick Bourne plays in a way that Bond, with his Union Jack iconography, never could; the political becoming so deeply personal. The amnesiac Bourne has no choice but to make it so, because what else does he have? And sure, he can speak every language, win a knife fight with a hand towel, and Sherlock the hell out of a room, but for an audience left in the dust by 9/11 and the Iraq War, Bourne brings himself to a fight that they can’t. It’s personal for the audience too.
These days, the personal and political aren’t even sotto voce. After years of decrying a return to the franchise, Matt Damon and director Paul Greengrass are back for Jason Bourne, their fourth outing together (and the series’ fifth overall, if you count that kind-of sort-of universe builder, The Bourne Legacy, which never quite lived up to its name). The Bush administration – the first to deal both with terrorism on a post-9/11 scale and data security in the internet age – was cited outright by Damon as inspiration for Bournes Identity, Supremacy and Ultimatum, forever tying the franchise into politics in a more concrete way than Bond’s changing face and hyperbolic villains, and it’s politics which brings the pair back again. Speaking to Buzzfeed, Damon was clear that “it’s Bourne through an austerity-riddled Europe and in a post-Snowden world… [These days] there are all these kinds of arguments about spying and civil liberties and the nature of democracy.” You don’t say, Matt.
It seems that with Jason Bourne, Greengrass and Damon have returned to his roots, even if their backdrop is a little different. The revelation by whistleblower Edward Snowden that America’s National Security Agency (NSA) had been spying on – well, just about everybody – touches on everyday life perhaps even more so than the messy Bush administration, and it has the added bonus of reflecting with perfect clarity the thing which Bourne has always pursued most passionately: information. There will be sympathy from a post-Snowden audience when they watch Bourne trying to smash through more governmental glass ceilings, desperate to learn just how much they really know about him.