I’m well aware of Reverse Shot’s reputation for what is often wrongly labeled as contrarianism, and so I know it may seem to stretch credulity to insist that, despite the outlandish praise that’s been heaped upon Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum, I went into it with an open mind. Though I missed Doug Liman’s first installment in the trilogy, I genuinely liked Greengrass’s Supremacy, and whatever reservations I had about his United 93 had more to do with the ethics of representation, given the 9/11 subject matter, than the craft of the picture itself (at least, at the time).
“This is, simply put, some of the most accomplished filmmaking being done anywhere for any purpose,” gushes Nathan Lee in an intelligent and thoughtful piece on Bourne Ultimatum at the Village Voice, and in his praise, he’s not alone. But where some see a technically dazzling piece of action filmmaking, I must confess I simply see a mess. As the film’s advocates would have it, Greengrass has broken visual convention and effectively thrust the spectator into a thrill ride that seamlessly melds handheld, verité-style camerawork with the sensibility of a techno-thriller. The film is all about knowledge and surveillance: who sees whom, where, and when. But it doesn’t follow that we should have to work so hard to figure out what the hell’s going on—why, as spectators, do we need to strain to piece together the fundamentals of the visual storytelling (Who are we looking at? Where are these people—in relation to one another and in the context of their environment? What is the chronological relationship between this image and the previous image and the next image? Etc.)?
The shaking, haphazardly zooming camera prevents us from following movement or comprehending space, while also making continuity editing nearly impossible. Time and again, Greengrass gives us a single establishing shot and a subtitle with a vague geographic location (“Madrid, Spain”) and then plops us in the middle of a cinematic nowheresville. The resulting confusion this creates for the spectator may well stimulate a certain kind of nervous thrill, but I’ll take well-crafted conventional visual storytelling any day: where Bourne’s chase scene through the streets and apartments of Madrid is jarring and disorienting, it achieves none of the visceral energy that a comparable chase in Casino Royale did last year. By the end of Bourne Ultimatum, I honestly felt like Greengrass should be locked in a room and forced to watch D.W. Griffith films for a week.
This isn’t just an issue of aesthetics; it’s an issue of a rigorously thought-through aesthetic. The New York Times’s Manohla Dargis — as smart a critic as they come — raves that Greengrass “shatters movie space like glass,” but to what end? Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men, the best English-language film I’ve seen in a year-and-a-half, was also basically an action picture with an audaciously unconventional visual approach, but in Cuarón’s film, technical virtuosity served an overarching artistic commitment to a certain approach to subjectivity, point-of-view, and cinematic space. Why the disorienting storytelling technique in Bourne? Some clichéd flashbacks notwithstanding, it can’t have anything to do with aligning our point-of-view with that of Matt Damon’s amnesiac protagonist — after all, Bourne has a better knowledge and command of space, action, and time than anyone else within the narrative (he’s not disoriented, we are).
When Spielberg first brought verité camerawork into mainstream action filmmaking with Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan, it was, like Cuarón’s visual innovations, in service of an artistic vision — a certain approach to cinematic space and spectatorial point-of-view — but in the ten years since then, the dizzying handhelds and zooms have become their own kind of visual convention. Greengrass certainly has technical skill, but I’m not convinced that he’s anything more than an opportunist, honing and refining a visual style not to make a point but simply because it’s in vogue. Stephanie Zacharek in Salon claims the Bourne film is “the kind of picture that will still look good 20 or 30 years from now.” Really? I can’t help feeling the exact opposite. This is a movie that’s all about fashion. It’s very now. But it’s not very interesting. Two or three decades from now, this is exactly the sort of picture that’s going to feel very dated — and we’ll look back on it and wonder, “Why, exactly, did people make movies that looked like this?”
Bonus points if anyone can tell what the whole “ultimatum” thing is all about.