Jason Bourne—how we have forgotten freedom and privacy
Jason Bourne premiered at cinemas across North America last Friday, and pulled in approximately $50 million over its opening weekend. The film is the fifth in the hugely successful "Bourne" spy-thriller series and by all accounts this recent release is a major film event that marks a significant next chapter in a 14-year franchise.
For those who are concerned about the growth of government power at the expense of individual privacy and liberty, the Bourne films offer a lot for the post-viewing café conversation. Many of the themes relevant to a free society are addressed explicitly in this recent installment, but the film series as a whole features a character that resonates with our desires for individual freedom more generally.
For those who have been off-grid in a northern cabin for the last couple decades, a brief recap might help. The Bourne films are loosely based on Robert Ludlum's novels (The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum) written in the 1980s. Following Ludlum's death in 2001, Eric Van Lustbader has continued with the Bourne series, writing another 10 installments over 15 years.
The story begins with a mystery. A man is discovered floating in the Mediterranean Sea peppered with bullets. When he regains full consciousness he realizes that he doesn't know who he is, why he was shot, or how he came to be where he is. The character's story is a journey of self-discovery, both literally as he attempts to recall his past, and metaphorically as he attempts to understand how he could have done the things he did as a professionally trained assassin.
As with so many stories (from Robinson Crusoe to The Matrix) death or near death (or figurative death) experiences provide an opportunity for rebirth and renewed insight. In the Bourne series, the title character is "reborn" (Re-Bourne!) with a new consciousness and a new conscience. The amnesia wipes out large portions of his memory, but it also wipes clean the government indoctrination that was necessary to turn him into an assassin. Bourne's journey to discover who he is requires engaging with the elite government spy agencies for whom he worked. The action turns on the government's belief that Bourne has turned into a "rogue agent" and must be put down lest he reveal the secret (and illegal) activities of the special ops espionage activity conducted by covert government agencies.
What makes Bourne such a compelling character is that he’s an individual fighting against an oppressive government force. He’s fighting for his identity, his privacy, and his freedom. These values resonate in a visceral way with people around the world regardless of gender, race or culture. Other action heroes, despite their cool skill set or compelling character traits, simply cannot match. The closest parallel to Bourne's character is James Bond, but ultimately Bond is an agent of the state, driving state-funded cars, using state-funded exploding watches and responding to government issued orders. James Bond (and most other action heroes) becomes most interesting when he departs from the dictates of his superiors, goes off grid, and works alone to track down nefarious criminals who threaten the world. In other words, James Bond becomes most interesting when he is most like Jason Bourne.
In this last installment of the Bourne series, the surveillance state has become an efficient information-gathering-data-crunching octopus, capable of (for example) capturing a facial image through CCTV cameras during a riot in Athens, confirming the identity on a computer at CIA headquarters in Virginia, and almost simultaneously directing a government assassin to a nearby rooftop to get crosshairs on a weaving motorcycle and delete the person in question.
The film drops references to Edward Snowden, implicitly refers to agencies like the NSA, and turns on the real fear that the CIA (and other government agencies) use social media accounts to spy on whole populations—law-abiding and criminal alike. Orwell's nightmare has arrived, but there’s no hiding from the telescreen, which seems almost quaint by comparison to modern-day surveillance.
Jason Bourne may have lost his memory, but he never loses his drive to stay alive and fight for his privacy and freedom. One key question is whether the audiences who cheer Bourne on also have the drive to fight for the same values, or will they continue to sacrifice privacy and freedom in the interests of entertainment, comfort and convenience? You can "like" that on Facebook if you wish.