Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 1
WHAT DOES THE PROTAGONIST WANT?
Jason Bourne wants something truly fundamental: he wants to know who he is. “Who am I?” is one of the building blocks of narrative, and well-drawn characters are always asking themselves the question in one form or another. Luke Skywalker wants to know if he’s a simple farm boy or the savior of the rebellion, Chief Brody wants to know if he has what it takes to kill the shark, Clarice Starling wants to know if she can triumph in a world run by men, Danny Ocean wants to know if he is still lovable. A screenwriter is always looking for “a way in” to the material, something that is universal and strongly felt. No one has ever woken with amnesia and found out he’s a trained assassin, no one has ever had to blow up their father’s space station, no one has ever hunted a deranged killer while avoiding the advances of a second deranged killer. But the viewer identifies intensely with every protagonist here because the writer has found “a way in” to the story.
Jason Bourne is found, as the movie opens, floating in the sea (on a dark and stormy night, no less). He is fished out of the water by some Italian fishermen. The fishermen think he is dead at first, but discover the opposite. He is, for all intents and purposes, just been born. And yes, I believe the “Bourne/born” allusion is intentional. Jason is born, and then he is borne, by the Italian fishermen, specifically the boat’s doctor, who gently peels off Jason’s wetsuit (like peeling the shell off an egg, underscoring the birth theme), removes two bullets from his back (just been born and already shot in the back), digs a peculiar laser thingy out of his hip and nurses him back to health. Like someone who is newly born, Jason doesn’t know who he is, where he is, how he got here or what he’s doing here.
This is “the way in.” Because none of us know who we are or what we’re doing here. This is, in fact, why we go to movies, to find out who we are and what we’re doing here. It’s the reason we need stories. Your parents can tell you who you are, and spiritual guides can offer advice on why you’re here, but we know, deep down, that those things are just “information,” we don’t really understand who we are and why we’re here except through stories. What is Jason Bourne’s story? And, how does it relate to my story, your story, everyone’s story?
The laser thingy in Jason’s hip contains the number of a bank account. Just been born, and already he has a bank account! He also, we are told, can tie knots, do math, speak several different languages, read a map and fight pretty good. For a newborn, Jason is incredibly well-equipped.
The Italian fisherman boat doctor becomes a temporary father figure to Jason, as Jason speedily goes from newborn to adolescence. The question “Who am I?” after all is most acutely felt at the moment of adolescence. Jason, like a good son, stays with the fishing boat, “works on his father’s farm” as it were, but he chafes to get away, to discover his identity.
Meanwhile, at CIA headquarters, a skinny kid in a tie goes to report to his superior, who is, when we find him, sitting at a desk staring off into space. “The mission failed,” he reports. Who is this kid, and who is his superior? We don’t know, and we won’t really know for some time. The important thing here is that the skinny kid in the tie is not Jason Bourne, that is, he is employed, wears a suit and works in an office, while Jason wears fisherman clothes and does an honest day’s work with his hands and his wits. Jason has a fisherman father, whereas the skinny kid with the tie has a superior who sits behind a desk and stares off into space. This scene, which goes by in a flash, sets up an important narrative dynamic: Jason Bourne lives life, while the people back at the CIA sit at desks and gossip.
So. Like the viewer, Jason wants to know who he is. Unlike the viewer, Jason has a Swiss bank account and a whole bunch of useful skills. Why do we still identify with Jason? The answer is, because we now believe ourselves to be smart, successful and skilled. The narrative has just granted us these gifts. We looked at newborn Jason Bourne and said “Why, that young man is just like me.” And in exchange for your identification, the narrative has given you things you didn’t have before. Now you, too have a Swiss bank account and tons of applicable skills.
(Drama works best when all the characters operate at the peak of their intelligence and abilities. We automatically disengage from a narrative when a character starts to act stupid or irresponsibly. We no longer trust the narrative, which is another way of saying we don’t trust the storyteller. If a character is smarter than us, we identify with that character. If they then act dumb, we sigh and start looking at our watch.)
And so when they come to port, Jason’s fisherman father gives him a handful of cash to start him on his way, exactly in the manner of a father who gives his son money for college at the train station. Jason has been born, has suffered the pains of adolescence, and is now ready to go find himself.