The Bourne Identity

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A movie for every day of the year – a good one

15 January

The Pentagon dedicated, 1943

On this day in 1943 in Arlington Virginia the Pentagon was dedicated.

At the time it was the largest building in the world. The home of the US Department of Defense, it was originally intended to be built on an irregularly pentagonal piece of land at Arlington Farms.

When it was learnt that this location would obstruct the view of Washington DC from Arlington Cemetery, where soldiers fallen in conflicts since the Civil War have been buried, the location was switched to the site of the defunct Washington Hoover Airport.

The design stayed pentagonal but was regularised. For similar reasons of not wishing to overshadow the buildings of the nation’s capital, the building was kept low. In keeping with the pentagon theme the building is five storeys high (there are another two below ground), has 17.5 miles (28.2km) of corridors and twice the number of toilet facilities you’d expect in a building of this size – one set for whites, one for blacks, though this particular piece of segregation was never enforced, thanks to intervention to President Roosevelt, who ordered that the Whites Only signs be taken down.

Similarly ominous is the 5 acre central plaza, nicknamed “ground zero” by staff during the Cold War, because this, they reckoned, was where the Soviet warheads would strike first.

Built during wartime, at a time when the US was abandoning its policy of isolationism, the Pentagon can be seen as the bricks and mortar expression of the country’s move towards a much more active, interventionist foreign policy.

The Bourne Identity (2002, dir: Doug Liman)

The breakthrough action movie of the new millennium, The Bourne Identity had actually been made once before, when it starred Richard Chamberlain as the amnesiac spy trying to work out where, who and what he is, while Jaclyn Smith – then still uppermost in the mind as one of Charlie’s Angels – plays the woman he kidnaps and forces to help him (Franka Potente taking the role in this version).

At around three hours long, thanks to its mini-series status, the original is a touch flabby and this reworking of Robert Ludlum’s original novel cuts out much of the fat to leave a lean chase thriller whose interest comes from watching a man of ingenuity trying to work out just what the hell is going on.

This time around Matt Damon plays Bourne and is well cast as the clean slate whose muscle-memory is tell-taling that there’s more to this guy than just some almost-corpse who’s been dumped at sea.

Who are the bad guys? The ones who threw him overboard? Or maybe the spy’s masters back at the Pentagon, in some shadowy project within a project, who are possibly just as unscrupulous. It’s also neverquite established just where on the evil/virtue scale Jason Bourne lies either. That, too, is part of his quest.

The film works best in its early scenes, when after washing up on a beach, Bourne is taken in by low-level police for questioning, while back in Arlington his masters are attempting to scramble all manner of dark forces when they realise they have a live one.

Director Doug Liman’s camera is working towards the shakycam/fast-cut style that became associated with the Bourne franchise and was copied by almost every other action movie. It’s inspired by the frenetic feel of 1998’s Run Lola Run (which had starred Franka Potente), and Paul Greengrass would supercharge it in the two follow-ups. (The Bourne Legacy, an attempt to continue without Damon and Greengrass isn’t worthy to touch the hem of an amnesiac spy’s garment).

As for support cast, the Chamberlain/Smith original had a few good baddies in it – Peter Vaughan, Denholm Elliott, Anthony Quayle – and this 2002 version keeps up with the idea of using thesps of a high standard and a touch of suaveté, plus a bit of movie-staple British villainy never hurts either. Brian Cox and Clive Owen satisfying the latter category, Chris Cooper and Julia Stiles the former. David Strathairn, Albert Finney and Joan Allen would all arrive at the waterhole in later movies.

Why Watch?

  • The film that rebooted the entire spy thriller genre
  • The film that rebooted Matt Damon’s career
  • The shadowy Treadstone unit is inspired by The Enterprise, set up to organise the Iran-Contra subterfuge
  • The great martial arts fights

The Bourne Identity – at Amazon

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© Steve Morrissey 2014

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