In defence of Bourne

Writing at Comment is free, Sarah Churchwell attacks the Bourne trilogy of movies, which were all based (loosely) on a Robert Ludlum creation.

Her basic charge is that the women in the Bourne movies do nothing but look “hapless”:

The rule seems to be that the more “realistic” an action film, the more hapless the women. The men can outwit entire government agencies, fight off 43 assailants at once, emerge from spectacular car crashes unscathed, and survive 10-storey drops into the East river (merely what Bourne does in Ultimatum). The women mainly stand around looking anxious. Joan Allen, who plays a CIA boss in all three films, has a slightly less thankless task; her character makes some intelligent decisions, but she isn’t exactly stirring.

I don’t know what Churchwell was watching, but the women in the Bourne movies are not largely useless and do not stand around looking hapless.

The only moral character in the Bourne series is Pamela Landy (played by Joan Allen). The film hints at her battle against sexism in her role as a CIA deputy director. Throughout the movies she retains her composure and professionalism, and sees a difference between right and wrong, good and evil. She has genuine concern for uncovering “the truth” rather than simply “winning”.

Marie Helena Kreutz (Franka Potente) helps Bourne in the first film, offering him solace, which leads to her becoming his love interest. In the second movie (Bourne Supremacy) she is murdered… by a man whose sole motivation is material profit. Throughout the third film (Bourne Ultimatum) it is obvious Bourne still misses her. In other words, she has affected him to such a degree that he has not been able to open up to anyone else. Hardly a minimal tribute to a female character.

Nicky Parsons’ (Julia Stiles’ character) is the only one who comes close to meeting the stereotype of the damsel in distress. But even then Churchwell’s complaints about “misogyny” are a stretch:

The most amazing thing Julia Stiles does in The Bourne Ultimatum is get second billing. She has approximately three scenes, in which her character runs the gamut from concerned to worried. In Stiles’s one big scene she walks hurriedly from an assassin in a crowded Moroccan bazaar, repeatedly glancing back so the killer gets plenty of good looks at her worried face. Never does she do anything in self-defence: grab a scarf or a makeshift wig to cover up her distinctively coloured hair, create a diversion by setting something on fire, invent a story to convince a stranger to help her – and why doesn’t she speak every language on earth, like male CIA agents? All she does is rattle locked doors, until she finds an open one and runs up the stairs. Now that’s ingenuity.

For starters, there is a general underwriting of all characters apart from Bourne. There is a hint in all three movie titles about why this is the case. If Churchwell had entered the cinema expecting to watch The Nicky Parsons Ultimatum and ended up watching a man called Jason Bourne take centre-stage in the movie, her comments might have made more sense.

And I don’t know about Churchwell, but I am thankful I have not experienced a lethal killing machine, trained to show no mercy or remorse his victims, chasing me with a gun. If I were to though, I am sure I would look more than “concerned” and “worried”. Maybe Churchwell is an expert in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu or Krav Maga, which she could have used to fend off a killer agent? If not, I am sure she would do the same as me. When Parsons does go to help Bourne, she is easily beaten off by the agent trying to kill Bourne — this is hardly difficult to understand when one sees that the agent is twice the size of Parsons (this isn’t Crouching Tiger, even if Bourne’s skills are somewhat magical).

If anything the three movies show men to be nothing more than violent killers (the Treadstone/Blackbriar agents are all men); greedy and motivated by material profit (Brain Cox’s villainous CIA deputy director Ward Abbott, the Russian oil magnate and mob boss Yuri Gretkov, and the Russian secret service agent Kirill); weak (the Guardian journalist, Simon Ross); and career-orientated amoralists (Noah Vosen, the head of Operation Blackbriar, played by David Strathairn). Indeed, even our intrepid hero is shown to break the law repeatedly (of course, he does so in order to survive) and his origins in choosing to become “Jason Bourne” (and give up his real identity) are murky and even immoral.

Churchwell notes that women can be action heroes, but these are supposedly only in the sci-fi fantasy genre; for “realism”, women are required to become mere mantelpieces and just look hapless. First, I would say “so what?” The biggest films of modern cinema history, and some of the most popular television series, are sci-fi/fantasy; and some of the most criticised movies belong in the action genre. Secondly, even in “realistic” movies we have characters like Sarah Connor (Terminator 2); Geena Davis’ suburban mother Samantha Caine who finds out she is a CIA assassin in The Long Kiss Goodnight (who was basically Bourne before Bourne was born); Uma Thurman and the female cast in Kill Bill (imagine the outcry at a movie called Kill Belinda); and the Alias television series.

Now, I don’t doubt television and cinema doesn’t embody prejudices and political agendas of the day; all cultural artefacts will to some extent. And I don’t doubt Hollywood, in particular, hasn’t been at the forefront in pushing sexism and racism. These are very interesting areas of research no doubt. However, Churchwell’s comments are not a real examination of the evidence which leads to a reasonable thesis. It is appears a mess of a ‘critique’ and makes light of misogyny, which, properly defined, is a hatred of women.

In my view, she picked the wrong film on which to base her critique. There are many examples, past and present, that would form a much firmer basis for her attack. For example, consider the recent Transformers movie which have no “female” robots, despite the original animation having a female robot as one of the Autobots (the good guys — the evil doers, the Decepticons, are all male). In fact, the only human female character is in the movie to bring the target audience (young males) through the turnstile — the fact this is a movie aimed at a younger audience and not (supposedly) discerning adults who might at least be able to spot misogyny, should have caught Churchwell’s attention over a movie whose main object of criticism was state/government agencies, their secretive operations and the implications for invididuals working in these organisations.

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