Monday, August 13, 2012

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy

Directed by Tony Gilroy. 2012.

I entered The Bourne Legacy having retained nothing from the preceding Bourne films, save whiplash. I left The Bourne Legacy having learned nothing about the intrigues surrounding Jason Bourne or this film's hero, Aaron Cross. Does it matter? Not a bit. Legacy gets away with this gaping lacuna because the film is about not knowing. It's about the effects of secrets, secrets on top of secrets and within secrets. It's about secrets spreading like poison through unnamed government programs and threatening to topple agencies, agencies headed by people who don't report to anyone so long as crises are kept out of the news.

Unfortunately for Aaron Cross, he not only carries a secret, he is a secret, and whatever agency enlisted him is now burning the program. Everyone goes, the research stays. Jeremy Renner is a persuasive everyman and we feel the weight of the hundreds of billions of dollars of resources brought down on his head. We too shrink under the thousands of surveillance cameras overhead in drones, on the streets, and in buildings. All of this weight is multiplied by the fact that he doesn't know the motives of his hunters.

As omniscient observers, though, we see not only that Cross is in the dark, but most everyone as well. In a low-key scene early on, Cross, making his way back to civilization through mountains, enters a CIA safe house. Inside an agent minds the house. Or is he an agent? Who is he, what does he know about Cross, about Bourne, or about anything? Does he always mind the house or has he been planted there to meet, or dispatch with, Cross? Over some gruel the two men realize the alienating consequences of their business. "Are you testing me?" Cross asks the agent who no doubt wonders the same. This constructed ignorance is not limited to the operatives on the ground either, since even the CIA director and the important-looking admiral remain partially in the dark. The only man with the whole scoop on this project is its head, Col. Eric Byer, USAF (Edward Norton.) When he decides the program has been compromised, the higher-ups can't ask any questions and must go along with the clean up, if only to save their skins. Everyone else is just following orders or, in Cross' case, running for his life.

"Clean up" of course is one of those Orwellian euphemisms like pacification, normalization, and containment which masks the brutality of the act. Yet if Legacy had limited itself to portraying the besieged Cross it would not have seemed quite so brutal. While we sympathize with him, we don't quite feel pity for Cross because his extraordinary abilities seem matched to those of his oppressors. He simply lacks their resources. In one of the film's few light moments, after Cross makes an impossible getaway, a CIA desk jockey tracking him asks what he's armed with. Byer responds, "A rifle," and, embarrassed, adds, "A big rifle."

Spoilers hereafter.

We find a more sympathetic, or rather, more helpless, character in Marta Shearing, a doctor at the medical-pharmacological corporation Sterisyn-Morlanta, a corporation with some substantial government contracts. Shearing conducts research on breakthrough chemicals used to increase the mental and physical stamina of agents and, when Byer scraps the project, her team is wiped out. Surviving the purge by sheer luck, agents are dispatched to dispatch her before she can leave the country. Cross and Shearing finally cross paths in the attempted hit and the ensuing fight is for my money the best in the movie. The scene makes excellent use of the space inside Shearing's dilapidated house, which, with its stark white interior and sheet-covered furnishings, becomes an extension of the snowy outdoors. The result is a scene compact and striking, but not visually exhausting.

So why has Cross sought out Dr. Shearing? To get more of the enhancing pills, or pharma, as the addicted agents refer to them. He chose her because she had administered his physical dozens of times and quite simply, he remembered her. Shearing, however, does not recognize him at all, much to his astonishment and even anger. "What did you think you were doing?" he demands. She replies, aghast at her meager excuse, that she just "did it for the science." Flustered after Cross' barrage of questions she asks to be let out of the car and he lays down the hard truth that her science has become a death sentence. Paraphrasing, he tells her, "What are you going to do? Call your friend of a friend, or that guy who works at the Washington Post? Do you think you can get to him so fast that these people won't try to finish what they started?"

The remainder of the movie is competent and entertaining although it proceeds along regular lines. Weisz and Norton, as usual, give to their characters subtle secondary characteristics.  Norton is aggressive and near manic, heedlessly pulling his rank because he knows the hell coming down on his head if Cross gets away. Dr. Shearing seems relegated to the distressed damsel shtick but we would be wrong to overlook Weisz's performance. Her Dr. Shearing is a brilliant professional who one day gets swept up in a web of intrigue and violence she never dreamed laid just beyond her lab. Shearing is  analyzing what's happening as fast as she can and trying to follow Cross' lead, but she's out of her realm. She's pale from the sudden and relentless fear, in contrast to Cross, whose flushed complexion evinces the edgy, stimulated zone he's pushed into by his pharma. Legacy is no potboiler and there is thought in and effective execution of the details.

The Bourne Legacy could have veered off into typical action territory with its familiar cliches: the massive conspiracy that "goes all the way to the top," the bloodless businessman out to become richer, and so forth. I wonder if there remain today any conclusion which could satisfy a film of intrigues like Legacy without falling into cliche territory. Legacy avoids the problem by suppressing the catalyst for the chase: it's just about the chase. It doesn't condemn any particular enemy but makes us ask, what could be worth this? What's worth all of these lies, this web of secrets, this contrived hierarchy of ignorance? Even the most casual observer surely looks askance at the overwhelming force, wielded swiftly and absolutely by appointed and internally-regulating officials, brought down on one man. Amidst his current adversity Cross remembers a talk Byer gave him about their role as agents, declaring they get filthy in the field and do evil so that everyone else can keep themselves clean.

Legacy leaves us with two questions. For which policy, which value, do you get so dirty, and what happens when the evil turns round on you?

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