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Let’s Go to the Movies

Aug
11
2007

Our movies reveal a lot about where we are at any given time in our culture. And when it comes to political thrillers like the late-summer hit, The Bourne Ultimatum, those movies often seem to reflect both our own paranoia and uncomfortable truths at the same time. Bourne‘s success may be due to its deft exploration of the dark side of the current administration in Washington, giving us a more pointed analysis than we get from the mainstream media.

Movies – even documentaries – aren’t an accurate depiction of reality; life is rarely as tidy and meaningful as movies. But we have expressions like “truth is stranger than fiction” and “life imitating art” because life and art have a symbiotic relationship. Art helps us understand our world and there are things that happen to us that feel like they only happen in movies.

Certain types of events are so beyond comprehension, so violent and chaotic, that we think of them as “movie moments.” Ever read a news story about someone actually saving the world from a madman? James Bond does it all the time. But many Americans described the events of September 11 – a moment when this country actually was attacked by a madman – as being just like a movie.

One of the reasons we go to the movies is to escape reality. Sometimes that means entertaining fantasies of perfect true love or amazing adventures. Sometimes it means tapping into our darkest fears through horror movies. We like to think the bad stuff couldn’t really happen, not to us. But there are also movies that seem strangely prophetic when their events later occur in life.

That’s why it’s a little disturbing that the tales of Jason Bourne have a ring of verisimilitude. Bourne is a former government assassin, who has lost his memory and is on the run. The Bourne Ultimatum is the third in the series and while it features scenes with black hoods pulled over heads and water torture that might have come from the prisons of Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay, what really rings true is the statement expressed by characters that these are dangerous times and we must secure our safety through any means necessary.

For most of the 20th Century, the political thriller both reflected truth and presented fantasy. Films like Foreign Correspondent (1940) presented heroes being threatened by the Nazis or the Russians or unidentified foreign agents. But did any film of the Thirties and Forties featuring evil Nazis ever present a glimpse of the true horrors of the concentration camps? The Manchurian Candidate (1962) managed to simultaneously suggest that McCarthyism was a farce, designed to work us into a frenzy over a phony threat, and also that the domestic threat of Communism was real. After Watergate and the Church Committee hearings in the Seventies, we found out that our own government was up to some scandalous and crazy stuff. All the President’s Men (1976) seems a lot like other paranoid thrillers of the Seventies, such as The Odessa File (1974) and Three Days of the Condor (1975), but with the added benefit of being true. There isn’t an ax-wielding maniac hidden in the closet, but maybe your government is out to get you.

And that’s what’s most disturbing about The Bourne Ultimatum. Much of it is typical movie stuff: heroes making impossible leaps between buildings, car chases in the midst of cities, impossible hi-tech espionage. But at its heart, the film is about some very nasty people who work for the U.S. Government and who have done some very unpleasant things while feeling very justified in their actions.

At a time when our own government is spying on U.S. citizens, maintaining black-site prisons and torturing people for information, it makes you ask: Is truth stranger than fiction or is life imitating art? Maybe it’s better to ask it this way: Are we now living in a horror film or has the Bush Administration seen one too many action movies?

Share  Posted by P.J. Rodriguez at 2:07 PM | Permalink

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