An Ear for Film: Jason Bourne’s Silent Pain
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Each week or so, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.
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It’s come to my attention that Paste has not reviewed Jason Bourne, and as I should be regarded as Paste’s Resident Matt Damon Expert, then it is up to me to rectify this oversight. Here’s what I think:
This being the fifth Bourne film and Paul Greengrass’s third, the director by now knows intimately well what works for the franchise, what’s gotten it this far, and what is entirely expendable. What works and what has arguably gotten it this far is stripping Doug Liman’s spy and action dude tropes down to nothing more than a complex web of cause-and-effect, fueled by Greengrass’s now patented shaky-cam crutch, which, depending on your gastrointestinal constitution, is either an immersive quality, or a nauseating one. It’s basically the same thing Greengrass did in Captain Phillips (good) and Green Zone (bad) and will always do to varying degrees of success, to the extent that any new Paul Greengrass movie, like Jason Bourne, will only be a laser-focused refining rather than anything surprising or remotely new or whatever qualities mark growth in a once-refreshing artistic voice.
What is entirely expendable is language—like actual words spoken by actors.
One of the film’s first real conversations, as in multiple words exchanged between two actors, occurs during a riot in Athens, in which Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) arranges a surreptitious meet-up with her old golf buddy, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon), who is, now that he’s resurfaced, once again being pursued by the CIA because the CIA is again involved in pretty much the exact same kind of super-soldier program that once birthed Jason Bourne out of the husk of David Webb (Bourne’s real name), whose father, Nikki learned because she’s a hacker, founded the original program that basically ended his son’s life. She’s in Athens to tell Jason all this, which she does exactly as I just did, only with way less of a reliance on keeping the reader—or in her case, the viewer—interested in anything she’s saying.
To call their conversation perfunctory would be an insult to perfunctory conversations—instead, their dialogue is empirical: They use only the basest language to convey the most essential exposition, like two scowling Wikipedia editors plowing through a plot synopses with chips on their shoulders. It would be awkward were it not so efficiently stilted, a cut scene from a video game meant to carry you to the next gritty action bonanza, giving the audience just enough information to inform the characters’ subsequent actions.
Though Greengrass seems to want Jason Bourne to represent the ineluctable adoption of the name “Jason Bourne” by the tortured David Webb, implying that Jason Bourne was maybe inside David Webb all along, as was the capability to do all the horrible things Jason Bourne did on the CIA’s behalf, the plot to Jason Bourne pretty much boils down—as all Greengrass joints do: they boil down—to an identical revenge/discovery plot as every Greengrass Bourne movie before. The more Webb finds out about his Bourne identity, the more he just wants to murder everyone that ever had anything to do with making him Jason Bourne, which this time means he goes after CIA Director Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), who apparently has learned absolutely nothing from the catastrophic fall-out and leak of the previous government-sanctioned super-soldier program, because he’s basically doing the same thing all over again.
This is how Greengrass treats character development: He locks his characters into cycles from which they can’t escape, which would probably be poignant if any of his characters were capable of offering any sort of insight as to how aware they are that they’re trapped in these cycles at all. It’s a deficiency of language, and not because Greengrass is a bad storyteller—as kind of overtly bad as this script is, it’s still very functional—but because he has something else entirely on his mind.
In whittling down every aspect of his films, Greengrass is obviously aiming at something pure in action cinema—something wordlessly kinetic, impressionistic. Jason Bourne is only half of a good movie, but the good half is all of Greengrass’s action set-pieces: the convoluted, triple-crossing pursuit in London; the motorcycle chase in Greece; the monster truck rally in Las Vegas. Even a very early shot in the film, our perspective beginning over Bourne’s shoulder but snaking down his arm to follow his fist into a brute’s face, is startlingly immediate cinema, the stuff of an action filmmaker who can somehow trust an audience’s intuition and, dare I say it, emotion to follow what’s happening.
The bad half of Jason Bourne is its plot (which also includes a really stupid, faux-sociopolitically-relevant side-story about a social media billionaire played by Riz Ahmed), and dialogue, and characters, and total waste of Vincent Cassel and Alicia Vikander, and the way the camera lingers on every crevice of Tommy Lee Jones’s face, which is evidence enough that Paul Greengrass might actually despise his audience.
Jason Bourne isn’t a silent blockbuster action film because its studio wants it to make money, and maybe the world just isn’t ready for a silent blockbuster action film. But I think Paul Greengrass is ready, even if he’s not totally aware of it, because Jason Bourne is the closest he’s ever come to making the purest distillation of a Paul Greengrass film: a silent action film. By which I mean: Paul Greengrass should make a silent action film. Paul Greengrass, make a silent action film
Think fondly of what could have been but also what still can be—and check out my picks for the three best film-related podcasts of the week.
“The Interview with guest Diana Bang”
Lisa Christiansen begins by venting to co-host Andrea Warner about her frustration with the phrase “dance like no one is watching.” Christiansen believes that some self-consciousness never hurt anybody, and Warner thinks dancing like no one is watching is just fine. What they don’t mention is that their debated phrase is usually complemented by another phrase: “love like you’ve never been hurt”—which is bullshit. Dancing like no one is watching, loving like no one can hurt you—and singing like no one is listening, eating like no one is starving, living like no one can smell you—the only people who really devour and brandish these kinds of koans are the kinds of people who feel like the world is against their selfish ass. I’m with Christiansen.
Anyway, the real meat of this Pop This! episode is the hosts’ conversation with Diana Bang, a Canadian actress of Korean descent who most recently had a prominent part in The Interview. When asked about having a weird sex scene with Seth Rogen, Bang sticks pretty close to the script, but Christiansen and Warner loosen her up enough for her to grow increasingly candid about being an Asian woman trying to have a career in show business—let alone one in Hollywood. Mostly: she sounds really tired. Not necessarily of talking about it all, because she’s a very engaged guest, but just tired of feeling the need to talk about it, not to mention living it every single day.
The Important Cinema Club
“Fly Free, Francis Ford Coppola”
If you get to know any podcast well enough, for long enough, you’re bound to now and again hear an episode wherein the host or hosts sound like they’ve kinda given up on giving a fuck. This week, in talking about the supposed “passion projects” of late-career Francis Ford Coppola—Youth Without Youth, Tetro and Twixt—Will Sloan tells Justin Decloux that, upon mispronouncing something, he doesn’t give a fuck. It’s funny because putting together any podcast can, overnight sometimes, become pretty draining when the hosts aren’t looking, but it’s also funny because Will Sloan really does not give a fuck. They’re talking about some pretty bad movies by a director he deeply respects, so there’s really not much else to say besides maybe sometimes artistic voices just go away. Whatever. Most of this episode is actually like that, which reminds me how nice it is that in the vast sea of film-related podcasts, in which people talk about their serious love for film seriously, the hosts of The Important Cinema Club have a lot of trouble taking themselves seriously.
This episode can be paired well with last week’s episode of Mousterpiece Cinema, in which Griffin Newman stops by to talk for two hours about how epochally he hates the movie Jack, Francis Ford Coppola’s tragi-dramedy starring Robin Williams playing a 12-year-old boy. They talk so disastrously about it, you will question if the movie you saw when you were 11 was really the movie they saw only recently. Remember how Bill Cosby is in it? No, you don’t remember that. Because it was made in an alternate dimension by a Francis Ford Coppola not of our world.
Faculty of Horror
“Ghost Girls: Ghostbusters (2016)”
If you feel like everything that could be said on the Internet about the new Ghostbusters has been said on the Internet about the new Ghostbusters, leave it to Andrea Subissati and Alex West to clarify all other muddy opinions about something that deserves something more than a muddy opinion. Whether the film is perfect, or even great, hardly matters after the hosts share their burning desires as children to be Ghostbusters, instead often relegated on the playground to the Ghostbusters’ secretary or love interest because only boys were allowed to be Ghostbusters.
A lot of dudes who can’t accept that much of their criticism of the movie lies in sexism won’t be convinced by this perspective, but Subissati and West talk about their childhood Ghostbusters love so passionately, one can’t help but accept that whether or not the new Ghostbusters is any good—which the hosts claim it definitely is, and go into exquisite detail about why—it’s at least important.
West also makes an appearance on Caroline Fulford’s Loose Canon to make a case for Cherry Falls, an early 2000s Brittany Murphy slasher joint with more uncomfortableness than horror. West can’t totally defend the movie, but she does talk about it with as much enthusiasm as she has when she breaks down any film. Who knows where that kind of energy comes from?
Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can find it on Twitter.