Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 8

Jason Bourne has killed his brother, The Professor, in self-defense.  The Professor was sent to kill Jason at the behest of Conklin, who is both Jason’s and The Professor’s father.  Conklin has pitted brother against brother to save face in the eyes of his own father Abbott.  Abbott wants Jason dead and the whole Treadstone project to just kind of go away so that he can save face when reporting his budget to a Congressional committee.  And so a political aspect of The Bourne Identity presents itself: an older, powerful white man feels discomfort about covering his ass, and that discomfort sends ripples down through the chain of power that results in young men, spiritual brothers, killing each other in a foreign land.  The king’s discomfort results in the serf’s murder.

The Professor, with his dying breaths, does an odd thing: he seeks communality with his killer.  These brothers, after all, have both been through the same experience.  They have both suffered the whims of a bad father and there is a natural bond between them as a result.  And so Jason, in seeking the source of his troubles, in seeking his identity, in seeking himself, has found himself in The Professor, in the act of killing him.

Jason knows now that it is not enough to run, he must act, he must confront Conklin and demand his freedom.  He’s a child in a massively dysfunctional family and he wants out.  He gives Marie his identity bag (which now contains only money) and sends her off with Eamon.  He exchanges his identity bag for The Professor’s, and for the third time we root through an assassin’s handbag to gain clues to Jason’s identity.  Jason finds The Professor’s phone, which leads him to Nicolette, which leads him to Conklin and Abbott, and finally Jason is voice-to-voice with his father.  He tells them Marie is dead (the ultimate identity-makeover) and draws Conklin into a confrontation in Paris.

Conklin is, of course, a cowardly father, afraid of his brightest son.  He is Frankenstein to Jason’s Creature.  Jason just wants to know who he is and why he was created, and for those things, because Jason asks questions that Conklin cannot face himself, Jason must die.  Through some plot machinations, Jason discover’s Conklin’s cowardice and knows how he must strike.

He gets the drop on Conklin at Nicolette’s safe house and finally demands answers.  Again, the screenwriter’s problem in a scene like this is that, let’s face it, amnesia is silly.  It’s a threadbare, creaky, brittle plot device.  Amnesia is silly, and a super-assassin with amnesia is super-silly.  If either Jason or Conklin in this scene uses the word “amnesia” the scene turns comical.  The screenwriter here leaps over the amnesia problem by vaulting the scene into a much bigger picture: Jason, seeking only his identity, gets from Conklin a portrait of a hidden society gone insane.  Jason, Conklin says, is a malfunctioning, $30-million-dollar piece of government hardware.  Jason is, to Conklin, a mere cog in a machine so large that it is more desirable to throw him out than it is to fix him.

Conklin’s bitter diatribe to Jason finally brings it all back: he was on Wombosi’s boat to kill him, but hesitated at the crucial moment because Wombosi’s family was in the room.  To say Jason hesitated because “aw, he likes kids” isn’t enough.  What happens at that instant is that Wombosi’s identity changed for Jason, he goes from being “target” to “man,” and in that same moment Jason goes from being “assassin” to “man.”  That the screenplay gets all this across without words makes it that much more compelling.  Jason’s question, “Who Am I?” the same question we all ask ourselves every day, is thrown into dramatic relief: “Am I a cog, part of a machine that exists to destroy and manipulate, or am I a man?”  This question is the thing that has gotten him into all his current trouble.  The amnesia is a flag of convenience, a “movie problem,” Jason’s real problem is, yes, an identity crisis.

Once he knows the truth about himself, Jason must shoot his way out of the safe house and vanish.  Conklin, meanwhile, faces his own identity wake-up call when he is shot by another of Jason’s brothers, at the behest of Conklin’s boss Abbott.  Conklin made the mistake of thinking he was running the show, that he was the patriarch of this dysfunctional family.  To Conklin, Jason is a cog, but to Abbott, the whole damn thing is a cog.  He has Conklin killed, then shuts down the whole Treadstone operation in time to feed a line of bullshit to his budget committee, a group of faceless white men who are barely even paying attention to Abbott in the first place.  As the Grimms say, “This is the way of the world.”

Much later, we find Marie running a scooter-rental business in Corfu.  She has started the business, and her new life, with Jason’s money.  His identity bag is now a planter over her store counter.  Jason appears in her doorway and asks to rent a scooter.  Marie’s answer is the closest the movie comes to an outright joke: “Depends, do you have ID?”



8 Responses to “Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 8”
  1. Ricardo says:

    Yeah, waited till the end of the “movie” to comment. Thanks a lot, I’m looking forward to re-watch the movie with your analysis in mind.

  2. CWW says:

    I’d just like to say it’s been a pleasure to read all these.

    You obviously pin-pointed the main theme of the movie as “identity”. In what way do you see that theme extend to not only Jason and Marie, but the US itself?

    Abbott has to go before a budget committee and justify himself, or put another way, he has to justify his identity, that of the “protector”. Or, even more in line with your theme, he has to justify himself as the “father” to the long line of sons doing his dirty work.

    This movie and the later ones more so have a lot to say about the US, intelligence, and its place in the world. Heck, most of the movie is of a US strongman adrift in the Old World; he has the intelligence and sheer strength to do whatever he wants but is completely lost as to what he wants, which he hopes his identity will bring him.

    I think I might have rambled there.

    • CWW says:

      Also, is the book worth reading?

      • Todd says:

        I haven’t read it. I’ve heard from reliable sources that it’s good, but very very different from the movie.

    • Todd says:

      There is, indeed, an aspect of the metaphor that resonates with, shall we say, “national identity.” I think it may be a coincidence, but the fact that a movie came out about a US assassin who wakes up one day and finds that he’s not one of the “good guys,” shortly after 9/11, may have contributed to the movie’s success.

  3. Hannele says:

    One of my favourite moments upon rewatching this movie is Abbott saying Treadstone is over, and we’ll never repeat those same mistakes again, only to immediately bring up the replacement cog, Blackbriar.

  4. N.A. says:

    Man, I’ve missed these screenplay analyses. I feel so delightfully dumb, seeing an entire world of inner workings beneath a seemingly simple story laid bare.