The Best Scene From The Bourne Identity—and Why Bourne Is the Greatest Action Hero of Our Time

Overthinking the underappreciated.
Feb. 25 2014 9:45 AM

Why We Love Jason Bourne

His mission is the essential human mission—to find out who the hell he is.

Matt Damon in The Bourne Identity
Jason Bourne's journey is our journey.

Photo courtesy Universal Studios

Welcome to One Awesome Thing, a series of appreciations of underappreciated cultural fragments: a guitar solo, a sitcom scene, a line of poetry, or, as in today’s inaugural column, an existentially awesome fight scene.

Why do we love Jason Bourne? Why does this brooding nobody command our immediate allegiance? Because his mission is not to take down a cartel, destroy an undersea fear factory, or cripple a billion-dollar interstellar weapons system. It’s not even to save a beautiful woman. His mission is the essential human mission—to find out who the hell he is. Plucked nameless from the Mediterranean, a floating corpse, by the crew of an Italian fishing boat (water: mother-element in the Bourne movies); rebirthed on the wet deck, his twitching hand eliciting gasps of atavistic wonder; tended to—healed—with gruff inexhaustible charity by the ship’s doctor (“I’m a friend!” insists this heroic man, as a panicked Bourne rears up and starts choking him. “I am your friend!”); recuperating on board, at sea, strengthening, doing chin-ups, tying fancy seaman’s knots and asking himself who he is in French and German—indications of hidden skill sets, strange aptitudes and attainments ... Memory loss? Identity loss, or erasure. A tiny bullet-shaped laser in his hip, pried out by the doctor’s scalpel, projects onto the wall an account number from the Gemeinschaft Bank in Zurich, Switzerland. The only clue.

So now Bourne is in Zurich, alone, unknown, past closing time, framed against blue-lit winter streets. Night falls; his breath rises. A Zurich of the mind. The scene shifts to a small urban park and two Swiss cops on night patrol. Slightly heightened, Narnia-like quality to the setting, snowflakes wheeling down through streetlamp pallor: “forgetful snow” as Eliot called it. Dreamtime. Bourne is fetal on a park bench, unconscious again; another birth-spasm approaches. “Hey!” The cops are rousting him in crisp officious German, telling him to get on his feet, let’s go, right now, the park is closed, no sleeping in the park! From their stance, their positioning, the looseness in their shoulders, we infer their readiness to give this nothing-man a beating. Interrogation, flashlight, yellow-white beam in the muddled and sleep-surly face; Bourne shields his eyes. They demand to see his papers, his identification. The question again: Who is he? Bourne mumbles, protests groggily that he’s lost his papers, first in English and then (as something appears to kick over in his brain, some buried system) in German: Meine papiere ich habe sie verloren ... He looks up sharply, then down again, shaking his head: Ich muss schlafen. I must sleep. Let me return to oblivion, be covered up with snow; let me not face again this prodding, peremptory Who am I?

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You walk to the mailbox, you mail a letter. Walking back, it comes to you with a queer shock of awareness that you have no memory of the mailbox or the act of mailing—and yet the letter is no longer in your hand. What happens next is the Jason Bourne version of this phenomenon. A nightstick is jabbed into his shoulder: Bourne frowns, as if in recognition. He grabs the nightstick. “Hey!” says the cop. Voltage jump, hair-raising crackle of imminent violence: The three men are momentarily one circuit. Then Bourne looks right, looks left, stands up and in five movements disarms and dismantles the two cops: wrist grab, forearm smash, nightstick to face, wham, bam, an ecstasy of automatism. It’s over. The symmetry of the encounter is fulfilled: Policemen are laid out, sleeping in the sleepy snow ... and Bourne is all at once horribly conscious. It swarms over him like a sickness. Panting and confused, he looks at the gun in his hands. He breaks down the gun, drops the pieces, and sprints from the snowy park.

So now we know. The fugue state is fully wired. It’s the present moment that hums with emptiness. Who am I? Who trained me? My substance was not hid from thee, says the psalmist to his God, in Psalm 139, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Yet somehow my substance is hidden from myself. I’m programmed—but for what? For some virtuoso ass-kicking, clearly. But there must be a mission, a commission, some greater duty. To find it out, that’s a long road. That might take two or three movies. Look at Jason Bourne fleeing the scene, shedding his coat as he goes. Short movements, maximum efficiency. He looks like a man imprisoned in motion.

James Parker is a contributing editor at the Atlantic.

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