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Spy vs. spy: Bourne tops Bond

Matt Damon’s conflicted Jason Bourne reflects our complicated times. By Joseph Tirella
/ Source: contributor

Ever since a strapping Sean Connery met a white-bikinied Ursula Andress on a Jamaican beach in 1962’s “Dr. No,” James Bond, that ever-British, debonair, cosmopolitan, epicurean (lady)killer, was the unchallenged reigning super-spy of cinema; the standard by which all International Men of Mystery were judged.

That is, at least until the introduction of Jason Bourne in 2002. Now, with the spellbinding third installment of the Bourne saga, “The Bourne Ultimatum,” opening Aug. 3, the title of Greatest Cinema Spy seems up for grabs.

Bond is a man of his times. Based, at least partly, on his creator Sir Ian Fleming’s own stint in the British Naval Intelligence during World War II — Fleming himself was a reported womanizer of legendary proportions — Bond can seem as two-dimensional as Superman. His motto would most likely be Truth, Justice and Her Majesty’s Way (and get as much nookie as you can along the way).

Regardless of which actor plays him, the Queen’s top spook stays true to his essential nature: he wouldn’t hesitate to accept the advances of a beautiful woman or eliminate some Cold War villain. In fact, he’d do both in the same manner: with a smile and a flute full of champagne in one hand. Cold is the optimum word, or as Special Branch Officer Gala Brand says of Bond’s facial features in “Moonraker”: “there was something a bit cruel in the mouth, and the eyes were cold.”

Blame it on the Cold War or blame it on the too-terrible-to-believe post-9/11 age that we live in (or better yet, blame it on Oprah — after all isn’t she to blame for the death of the alpha male anyway?), whatever the cause, Bond’s simple black-and-white morality seems as anachronistic as a creationism vs. evolution debate in some red-state courthouse.

Are we having fun yet, Bourne?Unlike Bond, who clearly enjoys his job too much considering the omnipresent wry smile on his face (regardless of which actor is in the tuxedo at the moment), Jason Bourne never smiles. And he too is a man of his time. Jason Bourne, as played by Matt Damon, is an ordinary-looking, all-American boy trapped in era when extreme governments use extreme measures to eliminate extreme threats.

He is haunted by the nightmare that he is a CIA-directed serial killer, expected to dispose of any target with lethal force. His whole identity is lost to him; the person he was before no longer exists, and the one link he had to happiness, his girlfriend Maria Kreutz (played by wonderful German actress Franka Potente) is gone, killed by an assassin’s bullet meant for him in the second film, “The Bourne Supremacy.” Without revealing any major plot points, when “The Bourne Ultimatum” opens, he is still mourning her loss. Would Bond ever show such human emotions?

Bond once seemed like a real-life and invulnerable superhero born to combat Cold War villainy, but he no longer seems as dashing considering the very real tragedies that transpired throughout the European continent and the Third World in the name of combating communism. The past, as films like “Goodbye, Lenin” and last year’s brilliant foreign film Oscar winner “The Secret Life of Others” show, isn’t that far behind us. Former Eastern Bloc nations are still grappling with revelations from their Soviet-era spies, as is Poland, where a Catholic archbishop recently admitted he spied for the former communist regime.

Of course, our own era is laden with tragedy. The war in Iraq with over 3,600 dead Americans (still counting — not to mention God only knows how many dead Iraqi civilians), Abu Ghraib, Daniel Pearl, the World Trade Center, Madrid, Bali, London, shoe bombers and the long lines at airport security, somehow watching a callous James Bond kill bad guys by day and bed beauties by night no longer seems so alluring.

A new eraBourne shares our own conflicted views of how governments deal with our age of terrorism. Maybe in the technological-obsessed times in which we live — the era of all-powerful iPhones and Wi-Fi public places, where anyone can steal our identity, credit card info, and social security number and turn our life upside-down — we’ve become uncomfortable with spying.

At least in the Bourne trilogy, tragic consequences of  “special ops” (as in special operations) are never far from the action. The black hood of Abu Ghraib is repeatedly invoked in a flashback in the new movie. The ex-CIA killing machine has tortured memories of past deeds; in “Ultimatum,” Bourne laments that he can remember every face of the people he’s killed but not their names. And when, in order to save someone’s life he has to kill again, he stares into space like a wounded child. Has James Bond ever lamented one of his victims?

It is exactly this conflict that “The Bourne Ultimatum” exploits for maximum effect. At one point when Joan Allen, who reprises her role at CIA director Pamela Landy, questions the wisdom of “black ops,” her CIA counterpart (played by David Strathairn) scolds her: “you know we need these programs.”

Many people in the United States government and around the world would agree. In 2007, it’s where we are as a nation. It’s also the reason why Matt Damon’s Jason Bourne has just eclipsed James Bond as cinema’s top new secret agent. Instead of a detached spy for a Cold War, Bourne is a conflicted man for our complicated age.