Inside A Scene: The Bourne Supremacy

I’m going to cheat a little and write about two scenes. When Timothy asked if I could write an article for FilmFisher’s “Inside a Scene” series, I automatically thought of the Moscow apartment scene at the end of Paul Greengrass’ 2004 espionage-thriller sequel, The Bourne Supremacy. I’ve always been intrigued and moved by this scene, and it continues to be one of the reasons why I’d argue that Supremacy is much more than a serviceable genre exercise. The Bourne trilogy is typically remembered as the brainy, grounded alternative to James Bond, as an action-hero vehicle for Matt Damon, as the proving ground for Paul Greengrass’ later critical hits (United 93Captain Phillips), or as the series that either reinvigorated Hollywood action films or ruined them forever, depending on who you ask. However, I don’t think there’s been as much discussion about how the trilogy — especially Supremacy, the middle film — is rooted in ex-assassin Jason Bourne’s very human struggle to change his ways and make restitution for past sins. This is what elevates The Bourne Supremacy and makes the quiet and understated apartment scene — not a car chase or fistfight — the high point of the franchise.

However, as I began to revisit the film in my mind, I realized that the scene between Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) and Irena Neski (Oksana Akinshina), though powerful in itself, is even more significant when viewed as the mirror image — in purpose, staging, visuals, and themes — of an earlier scene: the Berlin hotel room scene between Ward Abbott (Brian Cox) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen). The two scenes are halves of a single, cohesive unit.

The plot of The Bourne Supremacy is built around two dramatic questions. First, who framed Jason Bourne for the murder of two CIA operatives in Berlin, and how is he going to prove his innocence? Second, what exactly happened on the mission that haunts Bourne’s amnesia-addled mind, and how is he going to deal with the burden it places on his conscience? As the film progresses, we discover that the answers to these two questions are linked. On his first mission, Bourne assassinated the Neskis — a Russian politician and his wife — in Berlin, to protect his superiors, Conklin (Chris Cooper) and Abbott, from being exposed for embezzling CIA money. Years later, Bourne has gone into hiding, and Conklin has been killed. When Landy reopens the Neski investigation, Abbott hires Russian assassin Kirill (Karl Urban) to kill two of her agents, frame Bourne for their deaths, and then kill Bourne as well, all to protect Abbott’s earlier cover-up and bury the case for good.

Kirill’s bullet misses Bourne and kills his lover Marie (Franka Potente) instead. Seconds before her death, Marie tells Bourne that he is more than a trained killing machine, that he does have a choice whether or not to revert to the deadly cycle of violence and retaliation. And so the two dramatic questions are subsumed under an overarching thematic one: Even in the face of unjust suffering and the desire for revenge, can a man of violence resist his darkest instincts and choose the way of peace? The upshot of all three questions is that The Bourne Supremacy is not about government conspiracies or doomsday devices — unlike so many other films of its kind — but about a man’s fight for integrity and a clean conscience. The film’s title is misleading. Though Bourne does outrun, outsmart, and outfight his enemies at almost every turn, thus asserting his supremacy over them, it would be more accurate to call the film The Bourne Vindication — or even The Bourne Redemption.

The Berlin hotel room scene and the Moscow apartment scene are at the heart of that vindication, helping to answer the three questions. The former scene answers the first question (Who framed Jason Bourne?), and mostly brings the cover-up plot to a close. The latter scene answers the second question (What about Bourne’s memories?), and brings the reckoning-with-the-past plot to a close. And both scenes are related to answering the third question (Can Bourne change?). The reason Landy is able to confront Abbott before he commits suicide is that Bourne did not kill him in the preceding scene. Bourne does not avenge Marie, because she “wouldn’t want [him] to” validate Abbott’s taunt that he is “just a killer, and always will be.” And the only reason Bourne goes all the way to Moscow — braving bullet wounds and a bruising car chase — is simply to find the daughter of the couple he murdered, tell her it wasn’t a murder-suicide, and apologize. (Really, that is what the entire third act is about: risking death to say sorry. What an unusual, beautiful idea for a blockbuster. The CIA operatives don’t understand why Bourne is going to Moscow. No wonder, because most action heroes don’t do that sort of thing.)

Bourne only kills one person in the movie, but that was in self-defense and he is clearly disgusted by what he had to do. By the end of the film, he not only spares a guilty man’s life but becomes a bearer of life-giving truth, rather than the dealer of death he was trained to be. (Sure, meeting the murderer of her parents is not much comfort to Irena — but it’s certainly more comfort than believing that one murdered the other.) So can a man of violence resist his darkest instincts and choose the way of peace? Bourne proves Marie right. He can.

So these two scenes mirror each other in that they both resolve the core tensions of the film. But they also reflect each other by both portraying a man confessing his crime to a woman who walks into the room. Both follow a chase sequence wherein Bourne rushes to relay the truth to the people who need to hear it. Both take place in small living quarters that share a similar floor plan. And, as the following images attest, they share the same visual DNA, suggesting a host of other parallels.

Images 1A and 1B Image 1A and Image 1B

In Images 1A and 1B, a blonde-haired woman is in a hallway, standing outside a front door. She looks around before entering. Note the identical screen division: the woman is in the left half of the frame and the door is in the right.

Image 2A and Image 2B Image 2A and Image 2B

In Images 2A and 2B, the woman walks into a room to see a man sitting in front of a curtained window. The man is holding a gun in his right hand. Both of these shots place the woman close to the camera to black out half the screen. But whereas 1A and 1B were arranged identically, 2A and 2B are mirrored. The man in the chair changes places with the dark outline of the woman. If I may read a tad too much into this: The two women are there to hear the truth, whereas the two men have diametrically opposed reasons for sharing it.   

Image 3A and Image 3B Image 3A and Image 3B

Images 3A and 3B provide the reverse perspective of 2A and 2B. Now the man is the one providing the shadowy outline on one side of the frame. The woman stands in front of a doorpost, looking at the man with unease. 

Image 4A and Image 4B Image 4A and Image 4B

Greengrass includes extreme close-ups of the man — face partially lit, but mostly in darkness — as seen in Images 4A and 4B.   

Image 5A and Image 5B Image 5A and Image 5B

Finally, to provide one more pair of parallel images, take a look at Images 5A and 5B. When Abbott shoots himself, Greengrass immediately pulls us out of the hotel room, creating a jarring cut. The gun shot and Landy’s scream echo in the cavernous indoor atrium of the hotel lobby. We see a strikingly similar image when Bourne leaves Irena’s living room and walks across the courtyard of her apartment complex. The camera tilts up and settles on the large buildings so that they fill the entire frame. One image is populated by doors, the other by windows — all portals leading into other rooms, other lives, other stories. Greengrass seems to me a very observational, literal-minded director who values realism and concreteness. But while that analytical bent is evident in these two fastidious and geometrical images — it’s all lines and squares, everything is framed so neatly, and human beings are eerily absent — here Greengrass also verges on the abstract and poetic. For just a moment, he gestures toward a world beyond all the espionage — a world from which Bourne and Abbott are estranged.  

But I digress. Up until now, I have mostly enumerated the similarities between these two scenes. To bring things to a close, it is just as important to consider their significant differences.

The Berlin hotel room scene takes place at night. Landy knocks on Abbott’s door, then lets herself in. Abbott does not come to her to confess; she forces the confrontation. (You may have noticed in Image 1A that Abbott’s hotel room has been named after Goethe, the German poet who wrote one of the versions of the Faust story. Abbott has made his own Faustian deal with the devil, and now comes the judgment.) When Landy walks into the room, the curtains are drawn, and Abbott is illuminated by the artificial light of a lamp. All along, Abbott has been fighting to keep his true character and wicked deeds in the darkness, and now they are forcibly exposed. The scene ends in death: Abbott kills himself.

The Moscow apartment scene takes place in the middle of the day. Irena is returning to her own home. This time, it is the person who is already inside that is the visitor, and it is the sinner who initiates the confession. The wallpapering of the hotel room was a pale and sickly green, but the wallpapering of Irena’s living room is a cold and melancholy blue — just like the other apartment buildings seen outside the window. The curtains are open, and natural light illuminates Bourne as he reveals secrets long buried. Again, it could be said that Bourne gives Irena — and himself — new life.

Throughout the film, Matt Damon and Brian Cox — an underrated character actor who does wonders in the role of the embittered careerist Abbott — play foils to each other, and these two scenes give their dichotomy its fullest expression. Bourne and Abbott are both former members of the infamous black-ops Treadstone program, a part of their sordid past they would rather leave behind, and both kill a fellow ex-Treadstone member to protect themselves. Bourne strangles a man in self-defense, and Abbott slits someone’s throat, literally silencing him so he won’t reveal an incriminating discovery. Ironically, Landy thinks Bourne is behind the death of her agents, and turns to Abbott to help her find him. But it is actually Bourne who is determined to uncover the truth, and Abbott who is desperate to bury it.

Moreover, both characters are confronted with the choice to change. But whereas Bourne honors Marie’s final wish and seeks redemption, Abbott neither believes Bourne can change — “you’re just a killer, and always will be” — nor desires change for himself. He tells Landy, “I’m not sorry,” and justifies himself: “I’m a patriot.” Their conversation is very short, because he has nothing left to say. Within seconds, Abbott is dead, defiant to the end.

But Bourne’s scene with Irena is longer. He wants to be there. He wants to confess. The camera lingers on the scene and — in a film notorious for its rapid-fire editing — the cuts become fewer and farther between. Bourne’s final words to Irena are, simply and inelegantly, “I’m sorry.” One could argue there is a hint of self-justification when he says it was his “job,” not his choice, to kill her parents. However, the moral argument of the entire film is that people always have a choice. Even in seeking out Irena, Bourne has accepted his complicity and responsibility. Moreover, he sympathizes with Irena, and feels the weight of his wrongdoing, because now he has also lost a loved one to an assassin’s bullet. So I would say his apology is genuine. There is no defiance in his tone, only vulnerability.

Bourne-6

In my writings on film, I keep returning to the theme of true versus false repentance, and worldly versus godly grief. This is because, as a Christian, I keep having to reckon with the fact that on-going personal reformation will always be necessary this side of eternity. The trouble is that, in the church as well as the movies, we are beset with hazy, problematic notions about what penitence and change actually require. The Bourne Supremacy, however, is one film that does a remarkably good job of illustrating the fundamental principle expressed by the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 7:10: “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death.” Abbott’s grief is worldly. He doesn’t regret what he has done, only that the world has found out what he has done. His fear of retributive justice and his love of pride are greater than his fear of death and his love of life, and so he chooses death. And though I wouldn’t call Bourne’s grief godly — God is absent from the trilogy’s cosmos, despite all the baptismal imagery — it does lead him to something resembling Christian repentance. Bourne is eager to clear himself (2 Corinthians 7:11), and the result of his earnest pursuit of change and confession is a couple of lives set free. 

Robert Brown is a culture critic and academic living in Southern California. After growing up as a missionary kid in Hungary, he moved to California to study Cinema and Media Arts at Biola University and become a director. Instead — plot twist — he graduated with a B.A. in English and now attends graduate school. Robert co-hosts the In the Margin podcast, and publishes his various creative projects at www.robertbrownpresents.com.

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