“Jason Bourne” film: Don’t trust the CIA

Jason Bourne is the fifth installment in the Bourne film franchise derived from Robert Ludlum’s espionage novels that began with 2002’s The Bourne Identity. Ludlum’s original Bourne trilogy began in 1980 but didn’t reach the big screen until shortly after 9/11, when the Central Intelligence Agency and other U.S. intelligence agencies turned to what author Jane Mayer called The Dark Side. The latest sequel continues the Bourne formula of nonstop action combined with criticism of the CIA. It’s the fourth movie starring Matt Damon as the title character and the series’ third feature helmed by British director Paul Greengrass, starting with 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy.

In 2012’s Tony Gilroy-directed The Bourne Legacy, Jeremy Renner (star of 2008’s Iraq War drama The Hurt Locker) played Aaron Cross. But now, Damon is back as the troubled amnesiac groomed to be a member of a highly trained cadre of killer elite doing the CIA’s deadly, nefarious bidding around the world. Sort of “Hawaii Five-O” on steroids, unbound by trivialities such as, oh, you know, civil liberties, ethics and a little bauble called the U.S. Constitution.

There’s only one fly in this ominous assassin’s ointment: Bourne (né David Webb) has a conscience, which may explain his amnesia. He’s probably repressing all of the god-awful things he was deployed to do for the CIA as a lethal errand boy for what Pres. Lyndon Johnson pithily described as “Murder Inc.”

Jason Bourne reveals more details about the character’s mysterious past, with his CIA analyst father Richard Webb portrayed by character actor Gregg Henry, who as Hollis Doyle on TV’s White House drama Scandal is no stranger to covert operations. Julia Stiles is also back for her fourth outing as disaffected CIA agent Nicky Parsons. And typically for the Bourne franchise, we get a constant barrage of bombs, bullets and automobile crashes.

However, what’s arguably most interesting about Jason Bourne is its up-to-the-minute topicality, ripping those proverbial headlines right off the front pages (or websites, as the case may). The film alludes to collusion between the CIA and Silicon Valley as part and parcel of the Agency’s surveillance-state campaign to snoop on everyone. Riz Ahmed (of 2014’s superb Nightcrawler) plays digital tycoon Aaron Kalloor, who’s playing footsie with those spies who hate us.

Uncannily, Jason Bourne deals with cyber-attacks while premiering just days after WikiLeaks revealed that Democratic National Committee emails were hacked, disclosing the fact that the supposedly impartial DNC tipped the scales in favor of Clinton over Sanders.

The most interesting aspect of the Bourne saga is that, like that old “good cop/bad cop” routine from 1971’s The French Connection, Hollywood has played out the “good CIA vs. the bad CIA” in our post-9/11 motion picture public discourse. The clearest example of this came in 2012, with the “bad CIA” of Zero Dark Thirty that waterboards and otherwise tortures suspects vs. the “good CIA” of Argo, that carries out covert ops to rescue American hostages from Iranian zealots. (Of course, in the garb of mass entertainment, both films were militaristic, pro-CIA propaganda pictures.)

In a similar way the “good vs. bad” CIA has also played out in the Bourne series, with Joan Allen playing Pamela Landy, who opposes the excesses of her counterparts, such as Noah Vosen in 2007’s The Bourne Ultimatum, the overzealous supporter of the Company’s elite assassin program that gave birth to Bourne. That movie ends with Landy testifying before Congress about the CIA’s excessive use of unconstitutional force.

Earlier incarnations of the “bad CIA” included Chris Cooper as Conklin and Brian Cox as Ward Abbott in The Bourne Identity. Cox has a cameo, probably as a flashback, in the current iteration. But now, in Jason Bourne, CIA Director Robert Dewey is the heavy, backing crude, extraconstitutional foul play such as assassination, and is portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones.

Now, Dewey’s counterpart advocating for a more “humane” CIA is Agency cyber whiz kid Heather Lee (played by Swedish actress Alicia Vikander). It’s interesting to note that Jason’s Argonauts – the good guys in the Bourne pictures – tend to be women, starting with Franka Potente as Marie in the franchise’s first outing and in 2004’s The Bourne Supremacy.

As Jason Bourne struggles to be liberated from his espionage peonage, Damon deploys his deadly skills with devastating results. The relentless Jason Bourne is carpeted with wall-to-wall violence: Theatergoers who love special effects and amped-up action will probably be entertained by it while munching on their popcorn – they may even momentarily be distracted from texting-while-viewing. There is a car chase to end all car chases – to today’s cinema what The French Connection was to the 1970s’ screen – as Bourne and his enemies wreak havoc and mayhem across a Las Vegas redolent with representations of America’s over-the-top greed, materialism and capitalism gone berserk, not unlike the agents battling it out.

Paul Greengrass is a gifted filmmaker who made 1998’s The Theory of Flight, 2002’s Bloody Sunday (about the struggle for Irish rights), and 2006’s airborne United 93 (an early look at a 9/11 hijacking many deemed “too soon”), as well as the Bourne features. But Jason’s 123 minutes of nearly nonstop violence is so extreme that it becomes mind-numbing.

Having said that, what redeems Jason Bourne is its critique of the CIA. The giveaway that this may not be just another piece of pro-CIA agitprop is that there are no shots inside of the Agency’s Langley, Va. HQ, which are only “rewarded” to filmmakers after their shooting scripts are submissively submitted to the CIA to vet. The way it works is if there are any offending scenes or lines that may hurt the Company’s image (and, boohoo, its feelings) or its chances to lobby Congress for ever bigger budgets, they are removed. There are, however, exterior long shots and aerials. Another telling factor is that so far as I could determine, no CIA “advisor” or “consultant” is listed in the credits. Minus these intel watchdogs and those coveted interior shots at Langley, I am assuming this film was shot independently, without direct CIA influence, hence its ability to criticize Agency abuses.

It’s telling that when former CIA director and ex-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta delivered his speech at the Democratic Convention, he was booed. Because the truth is, there is no “good CIA” and this bureau of dirty tricks tasked with enforcing Washington’s imperial policies should be immediately pulverized into – as JFK put it – “1000 pieces.” The only good CIA is no CIA. But until that fine day, ticket buyers can expect yet another sequel to the seemingly never ending Bourne series.


Ed Rampell
Ed Rampell

Ed Rampell is an LA-based film historian/critic, author of "Progressive Hollywood: A People’s Film History of the United States," and co-author of "The Hawaii Movie and Television Book." He has written for Variety, Television Quarterly, Cineaste, New Times L.A., and other publications. Rampell lived in Tahiti, Samoa, Hawaii, and Micronesia, reporting on the nuclear-free and independent Pacific and Hawaiian Sovereignty movements.