The Bourne Ultimatum : Fantasy Meets Reality

In The Bourne Ultimatum, amnesiac superspy Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) finally confronts the CIA schemers responsible for erasing his memory and reprogramming him as the ideal assassin. Audiences flocked to watch Bourne on opening weekend -- it was the biggest August opening ever, taking in over $70 million -- and the most compelling aspect of this very compelling film is that the premise doesn't seem very farfetched, at all. Indeed, the story's only major fictional element is its depiction of successful CIA attempts to create a hypnotized breed of remote-controllable super-soldier. The rest -- the torturous "brainwashing" process, the ruined lives, and eventually, victims seeking answers and retribution -- has all happened before.

You might have heard (but probably haven't) of Janine Huard, a 79-year-old Canadian woman who in May settled her longstanding class action lawsuit against the Canadian government for conducting, in collusion with the CIA, invasive "brainwashing" experiments on her without her knowledge. To borrow from the Canadian Press: "Huard was a young mother of four suffering from post-partum depression when she checked herself into McGill's renowned Allen Memorial Institute in 1950. On and off for the next 15 years, she was one of hundreds of patients of Dr. Ewan Cameron subjected to experimental treatments that included massive electroshock therapy, experimental pills and LSD. The patients were induced into comas and exposed to repetitive messages for days on end to brainwash them."

Dr. Cameron was one of a cadre of psychiatrists and others working under the classified CIA program code-named MK-ULTRA, a decades-long, multimillion-dollar effort inspired by Communist attempts to brainwash American POWs during the Korean War. Many of those involved were prominent psychiatrists, Dr. Cameron particularly, having served during this period as president of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, the American Psychiatric Association, and as the first chairman of the World Psychiatric Association. In The Bourne Ultimatum, Albert Finney portrays a Dr. Albert Hirsch who seems very much an amalgam of these unscrupulous psychiatrists -- except that Dr. Hirsch's efforts were temporarily successful, whereas all known governmental brainwashing efforts (American, Canadian, Communist) were abject failures, leaving in their wake plenty of ruined lives but no superspies.

Of course, we can forgive director Paul Greengrass the fantasy, because a steely-jawed Matt Damon rocketing across rooftops in Tangier is admittedly far more gripping than the sad story of what actually happened to the governmental "brainwashing" subjects after MK-ULTRA closed shop. Some of these folks -- culled in the US from the CIA's own ranks and also from voiceless populations at prisons and psychiatric wards -- left in psychosis, and at least one left in a body bag. In Canada, Janine Huard left the hospital unable to care for her children; like Bourne, she suffered memory loss, and like Bourne, she sought justice from the governments that wronged her, although in a far less dramatic fashion.

Whether or not audiences are aware of the literal truthfulness of the Bourne premise, the notion that an authoritarian-leaning American administration and intelligence agency might abuse the trust of its public and trample the constraints of its charter is clearly more fact than fiction. For the latest Bush administration trampling of civil liberties, check your newspaper of choice. So there's some primal satisfaction in watching Bourne wreak havoc on the government that wronged him, which is a stand-in for the government that wrecked the lives of Huard and the other real "brainwashing" subjects, and also for the government that is on a daily basis wronging the rest of us.

I wonder, though, if the message gets lost in the action; do Bourne's recurrent flashbacks of being subjected to waterboarding, for instance, evoke for audiences Dick Cheney's defense of simulated drowning as an acceptable interrogation technique? Do audiences find themselves channeling their rage not just at Bourne's torturers and "brainwashers" -- but also at those under our collective employ? Does this lead to any shift in public consciousness, any inspiration for action?

Integrating vital political and social critiques into mainstream cinematic fare is nothing new, of course, but since 9/11 filmmakers have churned out a remarkable number of message films couched in more traditional garb, and I wonder if this effort has played much of a role in the political and social turnabout against the war in Iraq and the neoconservative agenda in general. George Clooney is a real mover and shaker in this realm, and last year, while covering a Golden Globes after party for the Los Angeles Times, I asked him about the efficacy of the effort.

"My theory is that if we can raise questions about our movies, we succeed," Clooney told me, clutching the statuette he'd just won for his performance in Syriana. "It's happening in society at the same time that it's happening in movies: People sit around the table, and for the first time since Watergate, they are asking questions about politics." Clooney and like thinkers in Hollywood had a reason to celebrate, that night; it had been a splendid year, with movies like Good Night, and Good Luck, Transamerica and Brokeback Mountain rounding out the progressive repertoire.

Another evening, on assignment for the Times, I asked Gore Vidal what he thought about Clooney's take. Vidal is, of course, a literary institution, a razor-sharp essayist and novelist, vocal critic of backward American politics and social values, and also a screenwriter and playwright. Clooney "and I live in a different time frame," Vidal said. "I remember Roosevelt and the New Deal. His time frame begins with Watergate. It's a totally different take. Oh, let's hope he's right."

"The problem with movies," Vidal went on to explain, wryly, "is that they're not encouraging for argument, for the mind. It's for emotions. And you can excite people to a certain point, but there's not a means of construction or argument. It just isn't suited for it. Some of the most famous movies, when you ask, 'well, what is that about?' Battleship Potyomkin, what is it about? Baby carriage going bumpedy-bump-bump-bump down the steps. Does that mean horrible things are done during a revolution? Well, yes, we knew that going in. But what does that symbolize? Everybody's just so overwhelmed by the image. Nobody thinks about well, what does the image mean? What does Eisenstein want you to think?

"Well, a medium that has that trouble is in deep trouble. And I think one of the problems today is that literature has no prestige, while movies have all the prestige. And movies cannot do argument, they cannot do the mind, they cannot do anything -- except get your pulses going a little faster."

Unlike Vidal, I'm inclined to think that movies have the potential to both get our pulses going a little faster -- and also to do argument, to engage the mind. Even, or maybe particularly, movies like Ultimatum, which draw us into a fictional landscape where human and democratic values have been grossly perverted... and then afterward, leave us mulling where exactly to place the dividing line between fantasy and reality.