The Bourne Legacy, Spies, and Superheroes

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September 9, 2012 by Ian Goldstein

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By Rafael Chaiken

Last week I went to see The Bourne Legacy, a spy thriller directed by Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, Duplicity) and starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, and Edward Norton. Not having seen the three previous Bourne films and realizing that the fourth movie in a series is seldom a paragon of quality cinema, I wasn’t expecting much. Yet it turned out to be great entertainment for a late-summer evening.

With meticulously choreographed chase scenes, an intelligent if somewhat convoluted backstory, and a minimum of the frenzied camera movements all too often characterize contemporary action movies, The Bourne Legacy deserves higher than its 55 percent rating on the Tomatometer. Beyond providing a fun diversion, however, the film lends some insights about anxieties in American culture and how we rely on Hollywood to assuage them. (Warning: The rest of this post may contain spoilers.)

First, we like to think that our spy services are more competent than they actually are. Following the intelligence failures that preceded 9/11, it should come as no surprise that we worry about how well the CIA, FBI, NSA, and their lesser known cousins can protect us. In the face of this fear, The Bourne Legacy presents spy agencies that are supremely skilled, if not necessarily trustworthy.

Using high-tech surveillance equipment and superfast computer networks, the command centers in this movie can seemingly locate anyone in the world within a few minutes. The CIA and FBI are the Bad Guys in the film, for they decide to terminate the superhuman (more on that later) agents in their secret program when its cover is in danger of being blown. Agent Aaron Cross (Renner) and scientist Marta Sheering (Weisz) high-tail it out of the country after escaping an assassination attempt, flying out of JFK under pseudonyms and holing up in downtown Manila. Wherever they go, the CIA has no trouble following them — nearly in real time. Intelligence agents patch into a weather satellite and obtain footage of their car, effortlessly connect with security cameras at the airport, and commandeer a network of street cameras in the Philippines. Though we don’t want the conniving CIA bureaucrats to find our heroes, we know that it’s inevitable.

Perhaps this is the way we want it to be. We realize that our spy services are not always beacons of morality, but we take comfort in believing that they’re extraordinarily good at what they do. Never mind the fact that most intelligence work involves slow, painstaking research and human contacts on the ground. Americans want spies with instant access to worldwide events, and Hollywood delivers.

Second, the movies fulfill our ever-present desire for superheroes. It’s not enough for our secret agents to be highly trained mentally and physically. Instead, Agent Cross and his compatriots are genetically enhanced. They take two pills daily, one to boost their mitochondria to provide greater physical strength and another that increases neural regeneration to provide genius-level intelligence. (In a plot point more humorous than may have been intended, Cross reveals that sans chemical enhancement he’s actually a dimwit with an IQ twelve points lower than the minimum for military enlistment.)

With his enhanced abilities, Cross can overpower several heavily armed CIA agents and dozens of Filipino police officers while remaining one (small) step ahead of the American intelligence network. Why do we revel in watching action heroes whose abilities far exceed reality? Besides the awe in watching something supernatural, I think, we want to believe that the existence of these guardian angels is in fact possible.

Though the Bourne movies are not what comes to mind when one thinks of Hollywood superheroes, Agent Cross’s superhuman abilities are not altogether different from those of Superman and Spider-Man. Others have noted the resurgent popularity of superhero films after 9/11. Even in our more realistic military spy thrillers, however, we crave heroes and villains whose superhuman competency is a wonder — and a comfort — to behold.

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