The Bourne Supremacy / The Manchurian Candidate

I asked a couple of friends to join me for a screening of The Bourne Supremacy, but they declined because it was the night of John Kerry’s speech at the Democratic Convention, and they’d decided to devote the evening to that.

“Hopefully what we experience tonight will be more meaningful,” my friend said, pissing me off perhaps a little deliberately, “but that’s certainly not guaranteed.” I countered with the case for simply viewing speech highlights the next day, with the likelihood of also seeing them repeated for the next few months ad nauseam. Tonight, I offered, why not take in an old-fashioned paranoid political conspiracy thriller, a work with something to say — without vote-courting obligation — about the changing postmodern world, about the violence of systems against men, about the amnesia of selfhood wrought from the abuses of a corrupt government?

So of course I spent the evening alone. Given my alienation from the evening’s speechmaking Super Bowl, however, I found the put-upon loner spy Jason Bourne that much easier to identify with.

In this sequel to 2002’s The Bourne Identity, Bourne (Matt Damon) is still working out who he was (in his notebook, for instance, is scrawled “WHO WAS I?”) before winding up with a vacant memory, an inexplicable head full of bad dreams, and an instinctive arsenal of lethal, American-made combat and spycraft skills. Now he’s also been framed for murdering a couple of CIA agents, and some Russian oil industry baddies are after him, too. At the beginning of the movie, he’s hiding out in India, as settled as he can be, but this doesn’t last long. Bourne quickly runs out of people to trust, and winds up running around the globe, from Italy to Germany to Russia to America (“There’s no place it won’t catch up to you,” he’s told), evading predators and trying to clear the name that’s still so unfamiliar to him.

Director Paul Greengrass brings us into Bourne’s unstable world with an abundance of shallowly focused close-ups and frenetic editing. The action is plentiful and intense, and it denies us the security of catching our breath or getting a good look around. All those great locations, I thought; is it too much to ask for a steady wide shot once in a while? But, of course, that’s just a version of what poor Bourne must be going through.

Damon, here relentlessly pouting and pared down, craves integrity and seems to choose his action movies accordingly. “Me, a badass?” his Bourne seems to say. “Shucks, OK—but, well, I reckon it’ll be a life of loneliness. Stiff upper lip then.” I was reminded of his line in Good Will Hunting about why a beautiful genius should be mopping the floors at M.I.T.: because it’s an honest living, because “there’s honor in that!”

As espionage movies go, The Bourne Supremacy is no Third Man or anything, but it has its honor, and its thrills. I’m not sure what I learned about the changing postmodern world and so forth, but in my moody solitude, it hit the spot.

The loftier expectations, therefore, had dimmed by the time I made it to the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, and that’s for the best. Here, again, we have a story of Powers That Shouldn’t Be getting into men’s heads and making them do nasty things. This time it’s the genetic engineering and mind control departments of a defense contractor called Manchurian Global—you know, Halliburton, basically—rigging up a Gulf War veteran (Liev Schreiber) with fake memories of medal-worthy heroics and controllable susceptibility to hypnotic suggestions, including the suggestion that he run for vice president. After which, the diabolical plan goes, the presidency will be forcibly vacated in favour of the cyber-veep. All that stands in the way is another veteran from the same company, played by Denzel Washington, who’s been having Bourne-like nightmares since Desert Storm and suspects that something’s up.

Luckily for director Jonathan Demme, who has chosen to update a movie originally designed by John Frankenheimer in 1962 to examine the atmosphere of American anti-Communism, my memory of the first Manchurian Candidate film is as hazy as the Manchurian Candidate’s memory of his bogus battlefield gallantry. As Schreiber puts it, “I remember that it happened, but I don’t remember it happening.”

Now, neither Denzel nor I were entirely clear on just what the suits at Manchurian Global planned to do with their future president upon owning him. Just prove that they could, I guess. Just, you know, get richer and control more stuff, more people. To be satire, to be an essay, as I think it would prefer, the movie can’t just abstain from articulation here. A common excuse, I think, is what Alfred Hitchcock famously called the McGuffin, that fictitious thing that drives the plot but doesn’t actually matter and therefore goes undefined because to elaborate it would waste story time.

But the new Manchurian Candidate takes itself much too seriously to concede a McGuffin. It has deliberately come out a few months before an American presidential election, and apparently it has a comment to make, but the film doesn’t even manage the sort of contagious rallying cry you hear at political conventions. Instead it speaks firmly in that one-note tone so common to the cantankerous, choir-preaching, under-analytical conversations now underway throughout the bars and coffee shops of blue-state American cities. Maybe it would be better after a few beers.

The movie’s intersection of liberal paranoia and libertarian paranoia could be fertile ground for the right American director. What it needed was a little crackpot panache, so how about a willful expatriate like Terry Gilliam? Sure, that would be lathery and ludicrous, but at least it wouldn’t be so bloody earnest. Demme might well have a sense of humor—his last movie was a straight-faced remake of Charade with Mark Wahlberg in the Cary Grant role—but I’m not sure what to say of his timing.

After the election, however it goes down, I might need to re-gauge the national paranoia. I might rent these two movies and reevaluate them. If not for meaning, as my friend put it, they might at least be good for nostalgia’s sake. But, as he also put it, that’s certainly not guaranteed.