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Monday, 20 August 2007

Bourne, ultimately

Today's Guardian features a rather lame critique of The Bourne Ultimatum, from well-known media pundit and UEA lecturer Sarah Churchwell, whose areas of expertise include American literature and culture. I respect and like Dr. Churchwell, so was somewhat disheartened to read her treatment of this great new American genre film - not least because its use of The Guardian in the film was both respectful and mature. Her basic argument is that the women in the Bourne films "don't do anything useful" and that the three main female characters in the trilogy, played by Julia Stiles (pictured), Joan Allen, and Franka Potente, unlike "male CIA agents" are "hapless". From here, the word misogyny is applied (rather trivialising that term).

As my grandfather used to say: come now. This article is not a genuinely engaged reaction to a serious piece of genre film-making. Nowhere in Churchwell's column is any credit given to directors Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass and lead actor Matt Damon for reinventing the tired spy-thriller genre, so devalued by the genuinely (at times) misogynistic Bond franchise, and the moribund Mission Impossible films. Churchwell forgets to mention that The Bourne films are the most intelligent, complex, morally and politically ambiguous, and exciting espionage movies made since the Cold War ended, and perhaps since The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. Instead, she treats them merely as one more example of action films where women are in jeopardy.

Actually, she gets more than that wrong. Churchwell, in setting up her argument, forgets the central conceit of the trilogy: Jason Bourne is an extraordinarily versatile killing machine; no other character, in all three films - male or female - is a match for his uniquely uncanny abilities. It is not misanthropy or misogyny that renders Julia Stiles weaker than the hero - but narrative's arc itself: how else can a hero establish her/his status than by saving those less gifted? Further, Stiles is a clever young operative, who, early in this film, acts quickly and expertly.

That her skills are not in hand-to-hand combat (or in speaking all foreign languages) is hardly reason to write her off - after all, she is a young, inexperienced, and low-ranking operative - the clear mirror of Joan Allen's masterful character, who, despite Churchwell's claim that she "isn't exactly stirring", is actually a sensitive and nuanced portrait of a woman in power, aiming to exercise said power with tact and restraint. The fact Allen doesn't bust some heads seems a cause for celebration, not lament.

Indeed, Churchwell has misread - against the film's grain as it were - the Bourne trilogy's central message - that untethered violence (without memory or remorse) is both terrifying and unethical - and that violence must find both its proper context, its historic origins, and even, radical limits. Rather than seeing the female (and other characters - the Guardian journalist in the film is male and incapable of sustained violence) as non-violent and thus pathetic, even maligned, it is likely they are meant, very intentionally, to represent alternative means of dealing with the world and persons in it. That is, non-violence, ultimately, is the aim of all good government - of, by and for women and men. I don't see misogyny in this, at all.
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