It’s amazing how much expectations affect enjoyment of a film. I was disappointed to hear Paul Greengrass had been retained for the third installment of Bourne’s quest to recall his identity. I think Doug Liman’s camera choices — handheld for Bourne and stable for Treadstone early on, changing to stable for Bourne and handheld for Treadstone later in the film — reflected the characters’ emotional states in The Bourne Identity much better than Greengrass’ fundamentalist devotion to disorientation in the sequel.
In The Bourne Supremacy I considered the shaky camera to be a waste of all the money spent on that spectacular car chase because we were never allowed to see what was happening, and spatial clarity is never more crucial than in a chase scene. Why organise such split-second automobile choreography then waste the celluloid?
The same criticisms are valid again for The Bourne Ultimatum, but having resigned myself to the fact that I would hate the cinematography, I resolved (as I did with 28 Weeks Later) to accept the style passively rather than mentally fight against it and just enjoy the story if I could. And with such low expectations, I certainly did.
In the first movie, Bourne is a perfect audience proxy since we join him just as his experience begins to reflect ours as the audience. We know as little as he does, except for those scenes when suspense is created by letting us in on the plans to capture him. But after two movies of witnessing his superior abilities and knack for escaping any situation, he’s acheived a legendary status that distances him from the audience and lessens the suspense since there’s little doubt the machine-like Bourne will come out on top. This reputation for invulnerability is further reinforced by the CIA’s own reminders to its analysts that Bourne is unlike anyone they’ve ever faced before.
So, given the apotheosis of Bourne, it’s inevitable that Ultimatum’s most exciting sequence is a low-speed pursuit on foot in which the hero has to remotely talk an espionage-naive journalist through a complicated attempt to lose a gaggle of tailling CIA agents. Since the death of his companion early on in Supremacy, he’s had nothing to lose for the last half-movie or so, but with Bourne graduated to guardian angel, Paddy Considine finally provides the audience with a vulnerable character to worry about as his disorientation recalls that of Bourne at the beginning of the series. Unfortunately Ultimatum never again recaptures the excitement of the most non-kinetic sequence in the film.
Nonetheless, the movie continues to surprise by not fulfilling (or rather, delaying) expectations. When Bourne steals a car for the first time in Ultimatum — an Audi just like last time — one expects a long and elaborate chase but it is quickly cut short, which in itself is one of the movie’s two biggest surprises.
The relationship of the second and third Bourne movies is that of two jigsaw puzzle pieces. A self-contained movie followed by two interlocking sequels is an old formula for trilogies, made famous by the original Star Wars series and continued most recently in the Matrix and Pirates franchises. Yet Identity is even more delineated from its sequels by the different visual styles of Liman and Greengrass.
Unlike the Matrix and Pirates sequels, however, Supremacy and Ultimatum were not filmed simultaneously and therefore Supmremacy does not end with as dramatic a cliffhanger. Though a third installment was no doubt discussed during the making of Supremacy, the audience could not be left with a cliffhanger not to be resolved six months or a year later.
SEMI-SPOILER: But three years later, Ultimatum manages to achieve a comparable effect retroactively with a revelation halfway through that reinterprets the second movie’s conclusion. But before you have a chance to catch yourself from falling off the newly hewn cliff (and without giving you a chance to demand a refund for the last hour) it’s already on the way to providing immediate satisfaction.
Ultimately, I’m glad Greengrass returned for the third film if for no other reason than preserving the continuity between the two screenplays that are completely co-dependent and deftly incorporate the issues of memory, recollection, and discovery into the narrative structure.
Lenny Moore and Dennis Cozzalio claim that the movie’s resolution betrays its paranoid consipracy theory premise by allowing a Senate subcommittee hearing to represent the truth of an evil government program finally being aired out. Indeed, it is similar to the penultimate scene of Identity, in which Brian Cox announces the closing of Treadstone immediately followed by an easily ignored announcement of a new project called Blackbriar, which we can now see was nothing more than a nomenclature shellgame.
The idea that Ultimatum’s conclusion rings false because Congress would presumably continue the cover-up of Treadstone/Blackbriar implies that the average congressman is both knowledgeable and savvy about black ops, but I think it more likely that most if not all congressmen are little more than buffoons. The first movie reinforces this notion by the ease with which Cox slides Treadstone under their noses, and it’s implied that their evident approval of Blackbriar is due to the opaqueness of the programme’s aims, not its transparency. Futhermore, in today’s polarized political climate I think congressmen would be eager to expose any clandestine goverment activity for the chance of scoring political points against the opposing party.
Nonetheless, I did find the very last shot to be depressingly optimistic. Bourne’s survival militated against the themes of all three movies, in particular the last ten minutes of Ultimatum. Especially given the revelation of David Webb’s voluntary acceptance of the assassin program, in terms of movie morality a character who’s done the things he has done should not be spared, no matter how likeable the protagonist. Did the few people he decided not to shoot in Ultimatum atone for the many assassinations of which we were constantly reminded?
Admittedly, floating in the water was a metaphorical death for the character, but by restricting it to a metaphorical-only death with his swimming away, they let the audience have their cake and eat it too. But in terms of the literal narrative the “happy ending” is actually an upsetting one which perpetuates the absence of justice that characterizes the trilogy’s critique of the world. In that sense, at least, the film affirms its paranoid conspiracy theory foundation.