Bourne Again: “Jason Bourne” and the Politics of Self-Knowledge

Francey Russell on how "Jason Bourne" doesn't fit in the series.

By Francey RussellAugust 21, 2016

Bourne Again: “Jason Bourne” and the Politics of Self-Knowledge

JASON BOURNE (dir. Paul Greengrass), tacked on almost 10 years after the third Bourne installment (though of course there was The Bourne Legacy, without Bourne, in 2012), begins with a voice murmuring, “I remember everything.” This line queues a helpful montage of clips from the earlier films, jogging the audience’s memory and offering assistance to new viewers. “I remember everything” might feel like a narratively unimaginative but fairly harmless way to begin a movie. But it’s much more than that in case of Bourne: the entire motor behind the series up until this point had been Bourne’s absence of memory, a loss so complete as to leave him without a self. So to begin this film with the confident proclamation of total memory feels not just like a cheap device, but an abandonment of everything that made the series innovative, both cinematically and philosophically.

The series began with The Bourne Identity (2002), which follows the efforts of an amnesiac assassin to make sense of himself and the strange, superheroic abilities that he finds himself equipped with. He must also figure out why the CIA is sending similarly superheroic agents to kill him. In the course of that film, we learn that Bourne is the product of a CIA black ops program named “Treadstone.” The subsequent films involve Bourne trying to remain outside of the CIA’s orbit while trying to understand who he is, what he’s done, and whether his past can ever be really past.

In 2004, Manohla Dargis wrote that while the question animating The Bourne Identity was existential — “Who am I?” — the driving question for its sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, was moral — “What did I do?” Taking up Dargis’s approach, David Denby, writing in The New Yorker, suggested that the question governing The Bourne Ultimatum (2007) was redemptive: “How can I escape what I am?”

In the films and in fact, these questions bleed into one another, each implying the others. To ask who I am is to ask who I’ve been, what I’ve done; and these questions get their ethical traction only if I am also asking who I can become. In Bourne’s case — and maybe always — these questions for the self can also be flipped and addressed to another. Bourne’s effort to understand himself takes the form of an effort to understand Treadstone, and so in asking who he is, he is asking who they are. In fact, the very first line that Jason Bourne ever utters is not “Who am I?” but “What are you doing to me?” He then collapses into an older man’s arms. In his efforts to put himself back together Bourne turns out to be utterly dependent on others.


If this rebooted Jason Bourne really does “remember everything,” what is the new question that drives him — and the franchise’s plot — forward? We first see Bourne making money from illegal fighting in Greece. After winning a match, he leaves and steadies himself behind a car, and it isn’t clear whether the fighting eases the headaches that have debilitated him since his training with Treadstone, or produces them. Eventually Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) finds Bourne and tries to lure him out of the fighting ring, first by appealing to his sense of pride (“look what you’ve become”), then by appealing to his sense of justice — neither of which Bourne has ever had much of a stake in. But then she tells him that she’s found more information about his past, and specifically, about his father. So the guiding question of Jason Bourne is ultimately: Who was my father?

It’s a reasonable question and not obviously unrelated to the first three. So why does Jason Bourne seem to add nothing to the series, bring no new questions to the story? Leaving aside that the film offers little novelty in terms of form (fast editing, city center car chases, international locales) or character (there’s the bad old white guy, the savvy younger white woman with Bourne-leaning sympathies, the assassin hunting Bourne down, etc.), and bracketing, too, that this movie was made largely thanks to studio pressures rather than any internal narrative logic (the chairwoman of Universal Pictures has said that her goal is simply to make Bourne movies “until [Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon] can’t do them anymore”), why doesn’t Jason Bourne work? Why does the question of Bourne’s father feel not just uninspired, but like a kind of betrayal of what made the series special and singular?

One reason is that Bourne has always been chasing his father, so there’s little new there. In the earlier films, all of Bourne’s final confrontations were with father figures, older men who seemed to hold the key to Bourne’s identity, not just because they knew certain facts but because, at Treadsone, they actually created the person that he’d become. But the problem with the new film isn’t just that it asks the same questions. It’s that, unlike in the previous films, Jason Bourne suggests that there might actually be satisfying answers to those questions, that there might actually be a key to be found.


There is a scene in Supremacy, where CIA agents Pamela Landy, Ward Abbott, and Nicky Parsons are trying to figure out why Bourne would be so apparently careless as to cross a border with his flagged passport, thereby alerting them to his whereabouts. Nicky tells them, “It’s not a mistake. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t do random. There’s always a target, always an objective.” Landy replies that the objectives always came from the agency and wonders, “Who’s giving them to him now?” The camera settles ominously on Nicky: “Scary version? He is.”

One way to hear this is that their machine, their monster, has come to life. In Identity, the head of Treadstone barks at Bourne, “you’re U.S. government property! You’re a malfunctioning 30 million dollar weapon!” So Nicky’s scary idea that their fancy weapon has developed a mind of its own.

But the truth is that Bourne does not have any objectives of his own. As always, he is not acting but reacting, and, as always, he is still reacting to the activities of the agency. Given that Bourne has no identity that is independent of Treadstone, because he does not know what they are doing, he does not really know what he himself is doing. Although his actions become increasingly purposive as his memories return and the trilogy progresses, Bourne is never really in command of what he does. One of the great thrills of the first three films is watching Bourne discover what he can do in the very moment that he does it. Early in Identity, two policemen ask him for some ID, which he does not have. As they move to detain him, his body opens up like a switchblade, exploding into decisive, highly controlled, quickly debilitating activity. Yet he is dumbfounded: he has no understanding of why he did this or how he knew to do it. Bourne is infinitely capable but fully alienated from his capacities. His environment affords him endless resources — in the best fight scene of the series, he uses a rolled up magazine and a toaster as weapons — but his surroundings never cohere into a world that makes sense to him. He has no organizing grip on why he moves through the world as he does. Bourne’s movements are actions without reasons, and so not really his actions at all. He is an action hero who cannot really act.

This is, ostensibly, because he cannot remember. He has no real present because he has no past. Or, he has no present since he is nothing but his past, and is fated to repeat it. So Bourne hunts for information about this past. But what the first three films suggest is that there actually is no memory or bit of truth that will finally set him free. The answers to his questions do not build on each other to provide solid ground; they circle back and undermine themselves. When Jason Bourne finds out that he is “David Webb,” or when he remembers that he volunteered to be broken down and made into a machine, what does this do for him? Is there any redemption afforded by this knowledge? Or does the truth just sit there, opaque and lifeless, while the questions continue to press?

Whether the point is to suggest that we are all in some sense like Bourne — we are all driven by questions with no answers, formed by forces we don’t understand, estranged from our actions, and opaque to ourselves — or to show how alien Bourne is, the first three films’ meditations on the empty center that hums behind human action and our hopes for self-knowledge are challenging and deep. The series gave us new ways to think about human action and about action films. There is no ultimate reason why Bourne is as he is: Yes, he’s David Webb, but who is that? Yes, he volunteered, but how did he become the kind of person who would do that? Yes, he got to confront the men behind Treadstone, and the later incarnation of the program “Blackbriar,” who turned Webb into Bourne, but we can also ask, what were their motives? While the word “patriot” floats around the first three films, these men are really just career climbers, and their evil acts are unnervingly banal. The point is that there are no answers or plot points that will satisfy the why questions. This is why Jason Bourne is so disappointing. It gives its characters substantive, dramatic, personal motivations and fills the empty center of its action with Ur reasons: sought vengeance and lost fathers.

As in all the others, in the new film Bourne must face down his brother/double. While Bourne is frequently described as “the best” or otherwise special, he is also just a member of a series, not a unique soul but one manufactured weapon among many others like him. These other weapons are not only the sole individuals who could remotely match his skillset; they are also the only individuals who could remotely understand him. While the father figures were there when Bourne was born, only his brothers know what it is like to be Bourne. They feel those headaches. But this faint promise of sympathy can only take the form of someone intent on killing him, so rather than bonding with his brothers, Bourne has to kill them first.

In the first three films, none of these men have any personal stakes in what they do. They are expressionless; they move purposively yet without urgency. When we watch them fight Bourne, we see human beings emptied of any will to survive. Their only need is to beat Bourne; personal survival is just a contingent side effect of that victory (as is demonstrated by the assassin in Identity who jumps out the window when he realizes that Bourne will win). Only “The Professor” (Clive Owen) yields a little as he dies at Bourne’s feet: “look at us,” he says, “look at what they make you give.”

But in Jason Bourne, “the Asset” (Vincent Cassel), an ex-Blackbriar assassin, is acting not solely under orders, but also from feelings of resentment and a desire for vengeance, since he was tortured following the Blackbriar leak that Bourne instigated in Ultimatum. The Asset goes off course, makes his own decisions; he even accuses Bourne of being a “traitor,” an insult which, in contrast to its use in the earlier films, apparently really means something. But this kind of passion is utterly foreign to the economy of action that so impressively structures the first films. While there is always an objective, as Nicky tells us, it is never the weapon’s objective: weapons don’t have objectives, they are not driven by desires. They are born along by the desires and objectives of others, carried by habits and patterns that were broken into their bodies. Of course Bourne’s objective is to understand himself, but this is not a drive that he identifies with or that gives sense or meaning to his life: it simply pushes him onward. Introducing history and motivation into the relationship between Bourne and the Asset turns Jason Bourne into a story about individuals whose self-directed actions make sense in light of their personal, deeply felt reasons. But the series was never about that: it was about agents without agency. And personal reasons are much less interesting.

This is why raising the question of Bourne’s biological father “Richard” falls so flat. Whatever Richard did or didn’t do, his goodness or badness, his connection or lack of connection to Bourne himself: we know from the last three films that none of this matters. But not only does the new film both raise the “father question” and answer it, it bloats the answer with sentimentality and the golden light of an admiring son. It turns out that Richard actually created the Treadstone program, so he is a dad twice over! But he was killed trying to keep Jason/David out of the program, so he was really a good dad after all.

In this hackneyed way, the film introduces satisfying Oedipal substance and finality into a series that had been about the perpetual dissatisfactions of human action and the endlessness of the pursuit of knowledge. Bourne’s other father figures were ultimately impotent bureaucrats, part of a larger system that they did not understand and certainly could not control. In confronting or remembering these men, Bourne gets only more details, the web of his life becomes more intricate, but this is shown to be a serial additive process without cumulative understanding. Similarly, the films’ formal grammar is disjunctive, not copulative — Bourne’s flashbacks are marked by choppy editing, repetitive speech, dark atmosphere, disoriented spatiality, and disordered temporality. In an especially charged memory, Bourne remembers executing a hooded detainee; when the hood is lifted, the man remains anonymous and essentially unimportant. We are learning more but nothing is adding up.

By contrast, when Bourne remembers Richard, the lighting is bright and golden, and the scene is presented as a continuous dialogue between father and son. This encounter is a point of origin, a platform for self-understanding. Whereas the other father figures were, like Bourne himself, insignificant members of a series, Richard is presented as a uniquely productive, all-knowing creator. Compare this with Ward Abbott’s final scene in Identity: while Ward was certainly the bad father of the film, he is here shown providing a banal administrative report to a CIA oversight committee, a small man swamped by a vast room, not his own boss at all but answerable to yet another series of suits.

In yet another turn of meaningfulness, we also learn that the Asset was responsible for Richard’s death — a car bomb, made to look like a terrorist attack that would give Bourne a reason to enter Treadstone’s program. Unlike the other assassins with whom Bourne has no personal connection, and unlike the nameless hooded victim, in this scene, victims and perpetrators are bound together in familial intimacy. By linking Bourne, Richard, and the Asset in this way, everything that comes later turns out to seem fated — or at least saturated with significance. The Asset and Bourne each hold the other responsible for some ultimate, life-changing, character-creating pain. Jason Bourne tells us that our titular assassin is not just government property or a malfunctioning machine, but a unique individual, the loved son of a special father.


The Bourne series was smart and compelling because it provided a trenchant critique of an entrenched liberal idea: that knowledge is a good in itself and worth pursuing for its own sake. By disentangling knowledge from empowerment in the character of Bourne, the series critiqued this idea while also insisting that we cannot simply give up the pursuit. In Identity, Bourne at one point insists, “I don’t want to know […] I don’t care who I am or what I did.” But we know it doesn’t work like that. Not wanting or not caring isn’t the point. Neither is the nature of the supposed answers. The hunt will drive you on anyway.


Francey Russell is a PhD student in philosophy at the University of Chicago. She works on issues in moral philosophy and subjectivity, and how these get worked out in art. 

LARB Contributor

Francey Russell is an assistant professor of philosophy at Barnard College and Columbia University. She works primarily on topics in moral psychology, history of philosophy, and aesthetics.


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