Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 1



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.



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15 Responses to “Favorite screenplays: The Bourne Identity part 1”
  1. Patrick Brooks says:

    Very interesting take on the whole Bourne/born concept, and the idea that audiences only identify with smart characters – I’ve always seen it that there’s a kind of vicarious thrill to watching someone who just doesn’t make mistakes (unless it’s a few key ones to drive the plot along) – as in, they can just think faster and more efficiently than the audience – we might be able to come up with something clever and smart occasionally, but if a character can consistently churn out smart ploy after smart ploy there’s an immense satisfaction to be gained from the pure respect and awe this creates. However, I think people like stupid characters in comedies, as there’s pleasure to be derived from laughing at characters who you feel superior to.

    Glad to see you continuing to do these, I was starting to worry your analysis well had run dry. I still really want to see you tackle Fight Club.

    Oh, but I’m slightly confused, how does Jason realising he’s bought a zoo tie into this?

    • Todd says:

      Sure, we certainly enjoy watching people be stupid, especially in comedies. But think of the horror genre: when everyone is acting as sharp and perceptive as they can, the story remains gripping, but when they start panicking and making stupid, rash decisions we see that we’re watching a bad movie. This is the difference between Alien and Friday the 13th.

      • Craig says:

        How about a film like Amadeus? We seem to identify with the protagonist specifically because he’s NOT as smart as Mozart.

        • Todd says:

          The point is not that every character is intelligent, the point is that they each operate at the peak of their abilities. Salieri is, very much, operating at the peak of his abilities. The drama of Amadeus is that Salieri’s peak looks like crap compared to Mozart’s.

          Salieri is also, I hasten to add, an anti-hero, a protagonist who destroys himself. That is his arc, to go from top-dog in the Vienna music world to genius-killer. The movie is about how Mozart destroys his life.

      • Patrick Brooks says:

        That is very true, but also isn’t there a point when characters just stop reacting realistically to situations? If characters are too smart and unflappable even when faced with absurd horrors, surely that destroys suspension of disbelief? Is there not a balance to be struck between being a complete idiot and being a prodigy, in order to reap the most identifiability?

        • Todd says:

          As I mention above, the point is not that the characters are superhuman, but that they operate at the peak of their abilities. The characters in Alien are a perfect example — they’re not super-scientists, they’re essentially bus-drivers. They’re janitors in space. They spend the first act of the movie bickering about wages and working conditions. That’s who they are. And every step of the way, they each act at the peak of their abilities, which, at the hour point, involves freaking the hell out. And it’s important that they freak out, so the audience knows that what’s happening is freaking terrifying.

      • JZalo says:

        Counterexample: “Fargo” (or “Blood Simple”, or “Miller’s Crossing” or any other Coen brothers drama).

        I’ve never liked this movie, maybe because i saw the trailer. After five or six action scenes the movie keeps asking: “Who am I?” (a question whose answer I already knew: “You’re an amnesic CIA superassasin, isn’t it obvious?”) without adding new interesting information. One of the few movies where I got so bored that I left the cinema. Anyway, glad to see you back on the unpaid script analysis web-bussiness..

        • Todd says:

          This is a marketing problem, not a narrative problem. The movie doesn’t tell us that, the marketing campaign does.

    • mimitabu says:

      “I’ve always seen it that there’s a kind of vicarious thrill to watching someone who just doesn’t make mistakes (unless it’s a few key ones to drive the plot along)”

      the smart character acting stupid to advance the plot is maybe my biggest writer’s pet peeve. few things push me out of a narrative more powerfully than character stupidity in obvious service of plot machinery. you set the stakes high when you introduce the genius character, and lose the entire game when s/he does something stupid (unless it’s done for great comedic effect, which it can be). too cheap.

      it’s debatable in the first place how compelling plot as plot is, or rather it’s something that varies from person to person (most people are of course compelled by great plots, a la the whole conceit of this blog). but when you have the plot machinery chugging along, and then say, “nope, rules don’t apply this time; i need to get them across town, so the chief’s photographic memory shall be turned off for this scene!” you nullify all force of plot as plot (i’d write ‘plot qua plot’ but i think that’s gibberish to non-philosophers). when that happens, the viewer needs to find something else–beautiful music, really funny jokes, etc etc etc. everything else in the movie/story is suddenly 100 times more important, because the compelling story disappeared.

      • Todd says:

        This is why the X-Men movies all have to move along at super-speed, and it’s why the characters have to all hate each other. Because, logically, the characters, each one of them, has a superpower so flamboyantly spectacular that they could probably solve the problem all by themselves. If the audience stops to think for a moment about the situation, the question “Well, why can’t they just…” comes up too fast.

  2. Joshua James says:

    Alcott’s back!

    Nothing to add … Bourne works extremely well, as you note, simply the central question is such a mystery not only to us, but to our hero … and in this case, the mystery and the hero are one and the same … audiences love that.

    Same for Skywalker, too … in a way, he is the central dramatic question of Star Wars …

  3. Thorsby says:

    There is a brief and very strange scene early in this movie. Jason has just left the fishermen. He is walking down a street. A car drives in front of him, obscuring him from the viewers. When the car drives on, Jason is gone. It is as if he vanished in thin air. It happens quickly, and it’s easy to miss.

    What the point of this scene is, I don’t know. Certainly it’s not part of the plot that Jason suddenly vanishes.

  4. yvonne says:

    Todd…I love your blog. It is so easy to forget what movies are really about. That they are an a art form and that many of the movies we enjoy and we find “entertaining” resonate because the writing is full of those deep themes that speak to everyman.
    I am looking forward to seeing your movie!!

  5. adam-0oo says:

    Glad you are back! Great breakdown, I read your comments on Alien and though you might enjoy this http://www.tor.com/stories/2012/03/the-real-struggle-at-the-heart-of-alien

  6. Doug Orleans says:

    The Italian fisherman made me think of Geppetto.