In honour of the release of The Bourne Ultimatum I had decided to make my 'kill-some-brain-cells-to-unwind-before-I-go-to-bed' reading the first of Robert Ludlum's oeuvre I had ever read. Plunging back into the fantastic Corsican landscape with Scofield took me right back to the start of my love of assassins.
It was USSR (uninterrupted sustained silent reading) in Yr 7 and as my classmates commenced their Judy Blume and Paul Jennings novellas I pulled out The Materese Circle. Frankly disbelieving, my teacher pulled the schools’ Head Girl up the front to ask in a shocked whisper if my parents knew I was reading the book. I blithely assured him that I was a precocious reader and this was shaping up to be as good a Frederick Forsyth. I was released to read more about the nefarious aims of the USSR (Union of Soviet Socialist Republics) in the conspiratorial and overblown style of Mr Ludlum and in the next book I went on to meet my favourite of Robert’s assassins, Jason Bourne.
After almost seven years absence from any of Ludlum’s books, trying to credit any of his extraordinarily convoluted plotlines about shadowy multinationals, dormant Nazi genetic breeding programmes and hysterical rogue assassins are harder than ever. Not because they are silly or overwritten, which is undeniable, but because they are no longer scary or unbelievable. One legacy of reading world news and a certain event between two airplanes and two New York Skyscrapers is that shadowy organizations have stepped into the sunlight, incubators are sending out their products and the hysterical killers are sanctioned. No Ludlum novel can out-spy, out-assassin and out-conspire the real world now, and I think that is the great strength of the movies.
All the movies are credits to the scriptwriters, who turn dated storylines into highly contemporary storylines, especially in the subtly of the treatment of those who created Jason Bourne. I was unsurprised, if disappointed, when the Vietnam War roots of Bourne and Treadstone disappeared from the first two movies, but utterly impressed when they made an unmistakable return in the third movie in the contemporary setting of the USA’s war against its own terror. Watching the movies adapt to their times is like watching Jason disappear on the Marseilles wharf in Identity, you barely notice the commentary but it is there and if you blink, you miss it.
Even a fleeting comparison of the Bourne movies and the War in Iraq yields some interesting observations. Identity, released in 2002, still holds to its spy-novel roots, the USA assassinating leaders in Africa is no longer implausible as the Marines search for Osama in the hills of Afghanistan. No ambiguities had yet turned the War on Terror into a farce and Identity was clear in its morality, concentrating more on the need to take out a potentially dangerous leak than the morality of those who wished to take him out.
Supremacy is released in 2004 as the War in Iraq hits its first patch of trouble, the WMD revelations in the UK and the US and the realisation that the USA will be in Iraq for a very long time indeed. The audience is still unaware, however, of the lengths to which the US Government is prepared to go to maintain Homeland Security and the motives for the corrupt elements in the movie is still the relatively familiar story of money and falling in with naughty Russians. I grew up on Cold War spy novels so I was bemused to see Russia making a comeback as the worldwide bad guy, all of Putin’s hard work getting my favourite country back on the side of evil with his fondness for blackmailing small European countries, assassinating journalists and dethroning oligarchs paying off.
It is Ultimatum, released when the powers of the US government are unrepentant in their contravening of the rights of their citizens that the films really hit their stride. The shock of watching a shooting in Waterloo and agencies drugging targets on the street at first stretches your credulousness until you remember a young Brazilian shot in the head on a Tube train and the Europe-wide inquiry into the CIA flying prisons. Unfortunately for this decade, ‘black ops’ is no longer a word used to glamour up a film, it actually happens on streets worldwide, and not just by US operatives.
Choosing to make the villains of the last movie the government that chooses tough love over rights for its citizens and foreigners was bringing the franchise back to its roots in the books. Bush has been putting the War in Iraq and the Vietnam War through some pretty spectacular historical contortions in the last year to align them to his satisfaction, and I would like to think that those who chose the direction of The Bourne Ultimatum knew what they were doing when they decided to let Bourne and his extreme ways loose on those who would oppress in the name of security.