Monday, April 07, 2014

Straying from the Party Line: The Bourne Identity, Part 1

This seems like a very straightforward action movie, but it had even more interesting deviations from the norm than Blue Velvet did last week. Here’s the first…
  • Deviation #1: There is no Moment of Humanity. This is odd, because the character is intensely likable, right from the start, but I couldn't find any one “I like this guy” moment until at least a half-hour in. Instead, our hero is the ultimate everyman: he might as well be our video game avatar, he literally knows nothing we don’t know about who he is or where he is. He’s not charming or funny, or even very odd. He’s just believably devastated and freaked out.
  • The Problem: Paradoxically, this sort of total audience identification is usually off-putting. We want to bond by getting to know a hero, piecing him together from dozens of personal details and idiosyncratic behaviors. We won’t recognize most of those details from our own lives, but, to the degree that they create a convincing whole, we will appreciate the intimacy that comes from seeing a realistic person in person in full, both publicly and privately.
  • Does the Movie Get Away With It? Yes, but it’s a huge cheat: they cast a preternaturally charming actor. Screenwriter Tony Gilroy was baffled and dispirited when he found out that they intended to cast Matt Damon, a baby-faced young star who had never made an action movie, but then he was glad to be totally proven wrong: Only an actor with Damon’s talent for guileless charm could have carried us through the opening third of the movie, until Bourne’s personal qualities begin to re-assert themselves, and he finally re-gains a bit of his metaphor family in the truckstop scene (“I come in here and the first thing I’m doing is catching the sightlines…I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself.”) At that point we begin to see that there’s a compelling person lurking underneath the blank persona. 
This also speaks to the importance of resourcefulness to likability. Bourne has less personality than most heroes, but he’s maybe the most resourceful character we’ve ever seen onscreen. In his commentary, Liman talks a lot about Bourne’s extreme conservation of movement, ability to scan a room, and his use of every part of his environment, which he and Damon planned out down to the smallest detail.

At one point, Bourne is trying to get out of the embassy and runs around a corner, then comes back and yanks an evacuation plan off the wall so that he’ll have a map. That can be as thrilling to watch as the punching, and Liman makes it clear how important moments like that were to him in building the character. At the very least, Bourne’s abilities fascinate us so much that we’re willing to wait for bits of his actual personality to start re-emerging in the truckstop scene.

More tomorrow…


j.s. said...

That embassy map moment is one of the highlights of the film for me. It's so smart, so ruthlessly efficient and it's so transgressive in a strange little way. Most of us, even in an extreme survival situation, don't think twice about why we're still following weird unconscious everyday rules of public decorum. Like, for instance, not ripping signs off walls. But Bourne, though human, is a bit closer to the Terminator in his decision calculus.

Anyway, this choice, like a lot of the others was at least partly (if not largely) Tony Gilory's. But I've heard him talk about it too and he readily and humbly admits that these sorts of little details -- about the super-smart things Bourne would do that show us in seconds why he's such a formidable super-spy but are nevertheless about realism and character not spectacle -- are the hardest things to write and that he and his collaborators (director, star, co-writers, consultants) will spend a disproportionate amount of time and energy working them out.

Have you seen the TURN pilot yet? It's a bit early to say, but I feel like I'll get more out of this series than THE AMERICANS. There's more of a devotion to the dirty realities of the political and dramatic situation, less manufactured histrionics.

Matt Bird said...

No, I haven't seen Turn. I should take a look at it.

As for your concern yesterday and today about Gilroy, you're right, of course, that he's one of the credited screenwriters (along with W. Blake Herron), and he's much more identified with the series than Liman, since he stuck around for all four, but I'm crediting ideas to Liman simply because he's the one talking about those ideas in his commentary.

Does he give himself too much credit for things that were actually Gilroy's ideas? Undoubtedly, as all directors do. Interestingly, Liman actually gives a lot of writing credit to Damon, who he claims re-wrote several scenes and/or improvised new scenes on set. (Damon is, after all, an Oscar winning screenwriter, so it's possible.)

But I see no reason not to believe Liman that the idea to option this book and the idea to rewrite it into an Iran/Contra style story were both his. His citation of his family history makes a pretty strong case.

It's really shocking how great Liman's commentary is. It's tempting to see Liman, who went on to make some stupid movies after this, as the dumb one who blundered into this franchise, and Greenglass, who made a bunch of smart, tough-minded movies in addition to his Bourne movies, as the real thinker of the franchise, but then you listen to their commentaries and Greenglass has nothing thoughtful to say at all (just lots of "it was really cold when we shot this" and "everybody was really great to work with") whereas Liman is very politically aware and deeply analytical.

As for Gilroy, he shows up in the documentaries, but he has no commentaries on the first three. He directed the fourth one, which I haven't seen yet (it's on its way through Netflix) so if he has a commentary I'd be interested to hear his point of view.

j.s. said...

I'm not denying Liman's personal contributions to crafting the villain or the world -- I especially appreciate his sense of low-key shabby art design of the CIA satellite stations -- just saying that the film and the franchise really wouldn't exist as it does without Gilory.

Gilroy has his own ego, to be sure, but the best evidence that all parties -- Universal, Damon and Greengrass -- viewed him as a key man in maintaining the integrity and quality of the series was how much of his b.s. they were all willing to put up with. Greengrass and he came to despise each other. Damon sided with Greengrass but even he insisted that Gilroy write the last two films. And Gilroy reportedly got a huge payday and a stipulation that he would never have to talk to Greengrass. And Universal not only ponied up for his own excellent, underrated spy comedy about corporate espionage, they also trusted him to reboot the whole franchise.

Unfortunately, the Gilroy directed Bourne sidequel,
though, not without interest, is easily the worst of the series.

I don't know where you're getting the impression that Paul Greengrass is some kind of lightweight. Perhaps you haven't seen UNITED 93, BLOODY SUNDAY or CAPTAIN PHILLIPS? Each film by itself would be proof enough that he's a better director with a more interesting career than Liman's (whose two other spy thrillers couldn't be more different or boring). He's made one bad film that I've seen, GREEN ZONE, based on an interesting book, mostly because he stupidly rushed it ahead into production between his two Bourne films with a script that wasn't ready and happened to be penned by his third or fourth choice screenwriter, instead of Tom Stoppard who passed on the job because he was busy with his own work.

To judge him by the fact that he tends to talk about more about production on commentary tracks strikes me as bizarre. William Friedkin does notoriously bad commentaries, for his own films and for others (like Hitchcock's VERTIGO or THE NARROW MARGIN), where he's essentially narrating rather blandly what's happening on screen. But that has no baring on the quality of his work or his actual understanding of the other films. Oliver Stone is unusually obsessed with theme, with politics and meaning on his commentary tracks -- does that mean he has no idea how he ended up creating at least three of the best shot and edited Hollywood films of the last century?

Matt Bird said...

Hey, I like Friedkin's commentaries! (The only ones I've heard are TO LIVE AND DIE IN LA and THE FRENCH CONNECTION)

As for Greengrass (whose name I've apparently been getting wrong for years), I was saying just the opposite: that it's *ironic* that his commentaries aren't thoughtful given than his movies are so smart and tough-minded. Clearly, he's a brilliant, politically-committed filmmaker, which is why it's amusing to me that (like a lot of great filmmakers) his commentaries are skin-deep, as opposed to Liman's.

The worst commentaries I've ever listened to are the Jerry Seinfeld / Larry David commentaries on Seinfeld. They did a great job on that show, but they certainly had nothing worthwhile to say about it.