Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 2
Jason Bourne has left the fishing boat, which is his metaphorical home town, has said goodbye to his foster father, and has set out to seek his fortune in the world. That sounds like the opening of a Grimm tale, which might seem odd for a fast-paced, big-budget espionage thriller. And yet, it just goes to show that storytelling hasn’t really changed since Grimm — there are still orphans, literal and figurative, leaving home, looking for themselves, looking for their identities. (Hanna took this to much more explicit ends.)
(Further reflection on my part connects Jason Bourne to Melville’s Ishmael — another orphan of the storm fished out of the water — but that’s a discussion for another time.)
Jason takes a train to Zurich. On the way, he looks out the train window. Few things in movies are accidental, and as Jason looks out the train window we can see his reflection in the glass. It’s a cliche, but when you show a character looking into a reflective surface, it is both a literal and figurative reflection. Jason is “reflecting” on his recent past, the mystery of his presence and the uncertainty of his future.
He arrives in Zurich. It has snowed, which gives the city its own new-born look, but it also underscores Jason’s orphan status. He’s now a Dickensian figure, an orphan in the snow, lacking only a crutch, a cough and a try of matches to sell.
He sleeps on a bench in the park and is awakened by a pair of policemen. What do the policemen want? Ironically, they want the same thing Jason wants: they want to know his identity. Of course, the state’s idea of “identity” is much more literal than Jason’s, and he expresses his anxiety by disarming the police and beating them unconscious with their own weapons. He ends up holding one of their guns, which he stares at for a moment and then disassembles and throws into the snow. So now we know that Jason is a supremely capable fighter, but we also know that he is not a sadist: he fights to the point where he gets what he needs, and then he stops. He even recoils at the sight of a gun, which, we will learn, is an important character beat.
(A topic for another time is how it’s perfectly okay for a cinematic protagonist to beat a man unconscious, but wrong wrong wrong to shoot him. The rules of cinematic brutality say that a man, especially a man in uniform, bounces right back from being beaten unconscious, but is irreparably harmed, if not instantly killed, by a shooting. That’s why everyone laughs when The Terminator stops at simply crippling a parking lot full of cops in T2.)
Meanwhile, back in the US, there’s a briefing in some kind of official looking room attended by a bunch of official looking white dudes. They’re discussing a new character, Wombosi, who is some kind of exiled African political figure who has been making trouble for the CIA. What his connection is to our protagonist is, as yet, unclear, but there’s one old white dude in the meeting, Abbott, who is clearly troubled by this briefing. Wombosi is in public now, talking about how he’s recently been the subject of a CIA assassination attempt.
Abbott, his brow furrowed, goes to his subordinate Conklin, who we saw before — he was the guy sitting at the desk staring off into space. Now that we know that Conklin is in the CIA and is connected to Bourne somehow, the question bears asking: what was Conklin thinking about as he sat at his desk and stared off into space? Was he thinking about Bourne? Was he thinking about Wombosi? Was he thinking about his career? We understand that Wombosi is connected to Bourne, and Bourne is connected to Conklin, and Conklin is in a position of authority over not just Bourne but Skinny Kid with a Tie (whose name is Zorn) — was he concerned that Wombosi is still alive, or that his figurative son Bourne has gone missing?
For we will see that, as often happens, The Bourne Identity is a story of fathers and sons. Bourne is Conklin’s figurative son, Conklin is Bourne’s stern, removed father figure. What kind of a father is Conklin? Time will tell.
For now, Conklin has problems with his own father-figure, Abbott. Both of them, it seems, are involved in a project called Treadstone. If Conklin is a cold father-figure to Jason, Abbott is much worse to Conklin — Abbott literally doesn’t want to know what Conklin is doing, until it gets him into trouble. So we see that the briefing-room scene has the function of Abbott getting a letter from his son’s school — “your son has been causing trouble and we need you to come down to the school to meet with the principal.”
In Zurich, Jason goes into a bank. What kind of a bank? The kind of a bank where you need to sign in with a palm print (another interpretation of the concept of “identity”). He is given a steel box by the bank folk. He looks at it with dread. In this box, he believes, is his identity. Like Harry Potter, the first step on his road to self-discovery involves a high-security bank and a box full of money. Full of money! He’s rich! Rather exactly like Harry Potter, or any number of fairy-tale orphans. And, like Harry Potter, Jason is possessed of magical powers that lift him up from the sea of humanity around him. And, like Harry Potter, his identity (there’s that word again) will hinge on whether he wants to use his magic powers for good or evil.
So the first thing that Jason learns is that he’s wealthy. Then he learns he owns a gun. Then he learns he owns a whole stack of passports, all with different names on them. The first part — I’m rich! — is great, the second part — I own a gun! — spooks him, and the third part — I have multiple identities — throws him into a tailspin. The metal box in the high-security bank hasn’t answered his question at all, it’s only made things more confusing.