The film character Jason Bourne has staked out a unique place in cinematic history as an anti-hero on a hero’s quest. The essential conflict surrounds a man searching for his past, who will stop at nothing to find out who he is and how he became that way.
For most viewers, Bourne is an uber-sexy and straight-up action hero, who can improvise killing with a ball-point pen, dirty towel, magazine, toaster, and shoelace. For anyone who is an adoptee, who has spent a life wanting to know who they are and where they came from, they will see this rogue agent with amnesia as a different story, about a person intensely wanting to know one’s self. They likely see Bourne’s narrative as their own.
His very name, which means outer limit in old English, also plays on the word’s other usage, as a verb, meaning coming into life from the womb. He’s a man who is literally born anew, without knowing where he comes from.
Bourne’s many opponents, in the dark world of secret U.S. government black ops programs and intelligence, are part of a vast system that works relentlessly to stop and kill him and those he loves. They had recruited him, brainwashed him, trained him, turned him loose to kill, and now need to terminate him to ensure their own personal survival.
The right anti-hero for a morally ambiguous world
At one level, this is a perfect story for our complicated times of secret rendition and torture, bulk data collection, and little-publicized military and intelligence operations. During the years Matt Damon’s Bourne emerged on the screen in 2002 in The Bourne Identity, the United States was involved in two official wars following 9-11 and supported other military ventures in Africa and the Mideast. The films emerged while U.S. national intelligence services widely expanded data collection programs on ordinary citizens and real and perceived enemies of the state.
The Bourne Supremacy followed in 2004, ramping up the fight choreography and exotic locations where Bourne battles his enemies. The last Jason Bourne franchise film, The Bourne Ultimatum, released in 2007, presciently predicted the later revelations of 2013 by former CIA employee and government contractor Edward Snowden. Real programs like the CIA-run Prism eerily resembled the fictional Treadstone and Blackbriar programs that our hero Bourne was once a member of in the first three Bourne films.
Like many fans of the Bourne series, I and others secretly cheer our hero as he gathers information through clues captured with surveillance gear, deception, impersonations, odd alliances, and direct confrontations with his nemeses. All Bourne wants to know is, who he is and how did he become the killer who can tear apart a U.S. embassy in Geneva as if it were second nature? How and why did he have to kill people deemed to be threats by his handlers?
Throughout the chases, escapes, explosions, and close-quarter death fights, our hero Bourne is constantly looking for answers. He has PTSD-like flashbacks, and tries to figure out his past dashing from Geneva to Paris, from Naples to Berlin. Why would he keep risking his life seeking answers?
The real motive is archetypal and older than Oedipus Rex
The motive is archetypal. Bourne is acting out a natural desire. It is the drive that is the most innate in humans—a quest of self-discovery. This is precisely the yearning every adoptee has. I would argue that the intensity of this desire for any adoptee is as strong as anything we see in the onscreen Bourne. It has a type of intensity that unsettles those who do not relate to this story in a personal way.
For those in the United States lucky to be born when original birth records were once again made accessible, this quest is much simpler than Bourne’s bloody odyssey. But for adoptees who were born in states where their original birth records are still closed, such as Michigan for adoptees who are my age range, they are more like Bourne on his now 14-year journey—denied answers, obstructed at every turn.
Unlike Bourne, adoptees are not trained in combat, subterfuge, and intelligence. They can’t beat up social service managers and storm into offices to reclaim documents that are theirs, such as their original birth certificates. They are mostly on their own. They have to play ball in a legal reality that treats them as second-class citizens, with no chance to hack a safe that holds all of the secrets kept hidden from them.
The second film in the series, The Bourne Supremacy, concludes with Bourne confronting his murderous past and telling actress Oksana Akinshina’s Irena Neski character, the daughter of two Russian activists, that he killed them and that she should know what he did to her mother and father. It’s a scene worth sharing again:
Bourne: Does that mean a lot to you?
Neski: It’s nothing. It’s just a picture.
Bourne: No. It’s ’cause you don’t know how they died.
Neski: I do.
Bourne: No, you don’t. I would want to know. I would want to know that my … that my mother didn’t kill my father, that she didn’t kill herself.
Bourne: It’s not what happened to your parents. I killed them. I killed them. It was my job. It was my first time. Your father was supposed to be alone. But then your mother … came out of nowhere, and I had to change my plan.
Bourne: It changes things, that knowledge. Doesn’t it? When what you love gets taken from you, you wanna know the truth.
This is one of the most moving scenes of the entire series, reminiscent of classic Greek tragedy. It brings instantly to mind one of the most famous adoption narratives ever, Oedipus Rex. In the play by Sophocles, the audience learns that king Oedipus was orphaned as a child to escape his planned murder by his father, King Laius, all because prophecy foretold a terrible future of regicide by his son.
A baby Oedipus was later adopted by a shepherd, never knowing the truth about his past.
Oedipus eventually becomes king of Thebes after killing his then-unknown biological father, King Laius, on the road along the way and solving the riddle of the Sphinx. He is rewarded for defeating the Sphinx by being married to the dowager queen who is his biological mother, Jocasta. The plague that grips the land, we learn, is because of his abominations. But our hero pursues the truth to learn that he is both a murderous adoptee and someone who slept with his own mother—a very stern warning against the adoption from our Greek forebears. He blinds himself plunging a knife into his eyes, and then leaves the throne.
Bourne, unlike Oedipus, does not blind himself. He does, however, confront all three of the father figures in the first three films who failed, in succession, to have their rogue agent killed: Chris Cooper’s Alexander Conklin, Brian Cox’s Ward Abbot, and Bourne’s brainwasher—knocked off in the only Bourne film without Damon—Albert Finney’s Dr. Albert Kirsch. With each character, he chooses not to kill them. He acts more humanely than the “fathers” who wanted him murdered for his quest of discovery.
To put it mildly, the confrontations are cathartic in the truest Greek sense of the word. They bring to stormy conclusions the hidden secrets and the hero’s willingness to accept the consequences for the truth.
Catharsis and its inevitability for anyone on this journey
For an adoptee who does find out who they are, and who are lucky enough to either meet their birth families and/or find their original birth documents, there will be catharsis.
There will be realizations that the fantasies about one’s past need to be thrown away. There may be realities of knowing who one truly comes from, good and bad. It could be both, but it could be far worse or better than imagined. These moments forever change the lives of the families who tried to keep the information secret, such as the fathers who impregnated and abandoned many single women, or the mothers, who realize that a past that brought so much turmoil must now be confronted.
This is not a place for anything but mythical, archetypal storytelling. It is good that the messenger is someone who is as resilient as Bourne.
I for one am very anxious to see how our hero, Bourne, resolves his journey in the fourth film, Jason Bourne. He will re-emerge from shadows and back into the light. Will he accept himself and find what he needs to know? All we know is that nothing will stop him. For that reason, I will be in the theater, cheering him on, knowing that the journey is worth the burden and obstacles.