Director Paul Greengrass returns to Jason Bourne, bringing serious issues to escapist cinema
Watch the trailer for “Jason Bourne.”
On a trip to Los Angeles about 18 months ago, the London-based filmmaker Paul Greengrass sat down to lunch at Shutters with Matt Damon and editor Christopher Rouse.
The latter two had come with a stealth mission. Greengrass had long been unwilling to make his third Jason Bourne movie, and for a time was even burned up about a spinoff done without him. But with the director wandering in a kind of decade-long exile making globalization cautionary tales, they thought it was time for him to direct a new movie about Robert Ludlum’s amnesiac assassin— in Bourne-ian terms, “to come in.”
“I was skeptical there was one to be done, I was skeptical I wanted to do it and I was skeptical it would hold up with the others,” Greengrass, 60, recalled of his response to bringing Jason Bourne beyond the initial trilogy. “But Matt said, ‘We’re really lucky to have an audience that loves this character.’ Chris said, ‘The world has really changed since [‘The Bourne Ultimatum’ in] 2007. I thought, ‘Maybe I’ve been too negative to an old friend.’”
Greengrass was telling this story in Las Vegas, where his new movie “Jason Bourne”— starring and produced by Damon; edited by and co-written with Rouse — would later that day make its debut, the same city it lights up in a blaze of neon destruction.
The figurative distance covered by the director is even greater. When the new “Bourne” arrives in theaters July 29, it will land the one-time documentarian back in a tentpole fishbowl he’d long swam away from — while excitingly but troublingly upping the political-realism ante above most Hollywood blockbusters. “Jason Bourne” at once expands the possibilities of, and tests the appetite for, serious issues in escapist cinema.
And it wasn’t even supposed to exist — not after Universal chagrined Greengrass by making 2012’s “The Bourne Legacy” with his foil Tony Gilroy.
“I had,” Damon said, “given up hope that we would get here.”
Watch the trailer for “Jason Bourne.”
Amid a sea of tattoos and flip-flops and selfie sticks, over the din of piped-in Kesha and slot-machine beeps, the crowd gathered in Caesars Palace to herald the return of Jason Bourne.
A somber black-and-white motif anchored by images of Damon-ish intensity adorned the premiere theater, forming a contrast with the pulsating rainbow in the casino beyond. As they walked down an indoor black carpet, principals described their movie’s dark themes not far from colorful slots with names like “Hearts & Dreams.” (That this theater normally hosts Celine Dion underlined the contrast.)
Such an incompatibility — substantive ideas and populist distraction -- provides an apt metaphor for the new “Bourne.” As one of the few auteurs at the helm of a summer franchise, Greengrass had built his latest work — and his career — as a kind of paradox.
With its trademark handheld cameras and edits faster than a croupier’s fingers, “Jason Bourne” vibrates with the momentum fans know well. From its early set piece at an austerity riot in Athens to its fiery third-act car chase shot practically on the Vegas Strip, “Bourne” keeps the plot turns coming.
There’s the ex-agent’s new discoveries about his past; a fresh chapter with his comrade-in-roguery Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles); slippery dealings with a murkily motivated cyber-analyst (Alicia Vikander); and a fraught relationship between new CIA director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones) and Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), a Silicon Valley mogul whose user database holds the key to Dewey’s intelligence ambitions.
And yes, Bourne is again on the run from shadowy bosses as he tries to learn what brought him here.
But you assumed all that. More novel are the social issues: The film’s Athens-to-Vegas arc, for instance, which by going from a flailing economy to capitalist excess puts a spotlight on economic disenfranchisement. Or the privacy debate — when Kalloor and Dewey tensely hash out whether a tech company should give the government a backdoor, it so closely echoes the recent Apple-FBI controversy over a terrorist’s iPhone you’d think Greengrass shot it last month. (He didn’t.)
“When we looked at the differences from ‘Bourne Ultimatum,’ it was shocking how much had changed,” Damon said. “We thought, ‘If Jason Bourne was on the run, why not run him through today’s landscape?’”
Because Bourne now remembers what he’s done, moral questions also enter. Does he want to use his lethal skills to serve his country or does he refrain out of guilt — patriotism or conscience?
Crucially, every enemy and good guy in the film lies within the U.S. government. This is a far cry from nearly all other 21st-century thrillers, and even from past Bourne movies (though “Ultimatum” gets close). No longer is the story about the U.S. versus its enemies. It’s about the U.S. versus itself.
“In a sense all these films are anchored in identity, because Jason Bourne is trying to find out who he is. But with this one I think we’re also asking how we want to define ourselves as a country,” Rouse said.
Put another way, the earlier films are post-9/11 movies. This is a post-Edward Snowden movie. And fittingly, it grapples with Snowden-worthy technology — hacks, facial recognition and social media, the last of which create issues. In a world in which tech companies offer a kind of ipso facto surveillance, what are their responsibilities to their users? Or their government?
“The conflict between social-media giants and the security demands of a nation state seemed really interesting to me,” said Greengrass. “It’s not right versus wrong — it’s two rights that are in tension.”
These interests stem from his background. Beginning as a TV documentary director in England, Greengrass improbably ended up in Hollywood when his 2002 Irish-massacre piece “Bloody Sunday” caught the eye of a CAA agent, then “Bourne” producer Frank Marshall and Universal Studios.
The Cambridge alum — who wears Harry Potter glasses, shoulder-length white hair and a mien that in a certain light can have him looking a little like Jay Leno — dedicated much of the next four years to “The Bourne Supremacy,” the sequel to Doug Liman’s “The Bourne Identity,” then “Ultimatum.”
He imported to these movies his obsession with current events (Greengrass is known for being moved to direct films by seemingly unrelated journalism; Paul Mason’s global-uprising study “Why It’s Kicking Off Everywhere” and a Wired article about hacker recruitment in Vegas were the impetus for this one) and on-the-move documentary-esque shooting choices. “You can never relax in a Paul movie,” Stiles said. “Even when you turn the corner, a camera always pops up.”
But his first two Bourne movies were, Greengrass admits, “painful in their processes.” Because his spontaneity often led to key moments being omitted, he and a crew often would be forced to return to various cities for reshoots, sometimes more than once. Hollywood tentpoles also feature rigid release dates and multiple writers — an awkward fit for a man who thrives on authorship and on-the-spot pivots.
Deciding in 2008 — after “Bourne” scored three Oscars and global success — that he didn’t want more agita, Greengrass walked away. He went off to make smaller-scale films in the vein of his earlier eye-popper “United 93" — the 2010 Iraq war tale “Green Zone” (a flop, underrated) and 2013 Somali pirate story “Captain Phillips” (a hit, perhaps the inverse). Damon, close with Greengrass, also stayed away.
But Universal, short on franchises and not wanting the rights to revert to the Ludlum estate, needed a movie. So executives enlisted Gilroy, who had written all three Bourne films but whose “Ultimatum” script Greengrass had almost entirely rewritten. They hired Gilroy to write and direct a spinoff, “The Bourne Legacy,” with Jeremy Renner in the lead role.
That sat poorly with Greengrass, who didn’t have a warm relationship with Gilroy to begin with. “Tony is all planning and Paul is all spontaneity. And they’re each strong personalities,” Marshall said of the dueling Bourne torchbearers.
Greengrass told confidantes he was truly done with Bourne. The bristling even spread to Damon, who went so far as to take a shot at Gilroy in a GQ interview. (Damon has since apologized. “I was surprised at how upset I was by the idea that there was a Bourne movie and I wasn’t in it,” he told The Times last week.)
“Legacy” performed modestly. Donna Langley, chairman of Universal, said that she was proud of the movie and believed it had a beneficial effect on the public. “We kept the spirit of ‘Bourne’ alive,” she said. Nonetheless, she really hoped Greengrass would come back.
But the director remained unmoved. His reluctance remained until that day Rouse and Damon met with him at Shutters.
We kept the spirit of ‘Bourne’ alive.
— Donna Langley, chairman of Universal
One of the most notable aspects of the new “Bourne” is how much the story seems to come from the headlines while still staying above the fray--"relevant without being topical or political,” Greengrass said.
Though some of the political issues in the new “Bourne” seem to come with a point of view (I’m pretty sure the movie takes Apple’s side over the government’s in the tech-backdoor issue), that may be as much a Rorschach effect as anything else. The film’s goal, ultimately, is to live in the churn of current events without offering hard conclusions about them.
“They wrote a script that feels like now but you really don’t know what will happen tomorrow,” said Vikander, whose character is positioned for a key role in future installments, should they come off.
One of the screenplay’s other distinguishing aspects is its auspices. This is the first “Bourne” movie of the five to date with which Gilroy was not involved. Instead, Rouse, a longtime Greengrass collaborator but first-time produced screenwriter, has taken the reins, with the goal to broaden out the story thematically.
“This film is more ambitious in terms of its throw,” Rouse said. “We wanted to get into the territory of massive societal forces in play, disenfranchised people and social media.”
Those issues indeed feel urgent. Combine that with a documentary-style shoot --"Never to anticipate the action but to follow it,” Damon describes it--and you’re left with a movie of far more realism than most summer action-adventures.
Unfortunately, more realism also means more reality. “Bourne” features the pandemonium of a public shooting and a fortified vehicle crashing through a crowd of innocents. While the similarities to attacks in Orlando and Nice are incidental, the film’s bid for authenticity could strengthen the connection for some viewers.
Greengrass downplayed the issue.
"It’s a bit of a stretch to link what happened in Nice, which is an ISIS attack on an unarmed crowd, to an exuberant popcorn car chase. You wouldn’t look at a demolition derby and say, ‘Oh my God.’ That’s what this is — a cinematic demolition derby.”
He added, “I think audiences know what’s in filmmakers’ hearts.”
Just the same, after the Nice attack, Universal pulled some TV spots spotlighting the Vegas car chase.
Back at the premiere, the feeling was more celebratory.
After the cast had made its way inside the theater, Greengrass took the stage, seeming like a man happy to be home as he called out cast introductions.
Earlier in the day he described why.
“In my little imperfect way what I’m trying to do is understand the world,” he said. “As a filmmaker, you realize as you get older that each film is part of a dialogue you’re having with yourself. That started when I was working in documentaries. And in a way I’ve never deviated from it.”
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