Bourne Ultimatum’s Anti-Americanism

Jonathan Last echoes a criticism I’ve seen of the final installment of the Bourne movie trilogy but articulates it better than others:

The structural problem was the rampant anti-Americanism. I hate being predictable, but here goes: I get that the Bourne movies are anti-imperial; I get that the U.S. government is doing shady stuff at Langley and that Treadstone is a scary program; but the first two movie handled these worldviews with some real artfulness. Ultimatum has none of that. We’ve got Noah Vosen running around New York shouting for assets and agents–even analysts–to kill, kill, kill–Bourne, journalists, other CIA officers, whoever. He does all of this with the goal not of protecting national security or even his bureaucratic turf, but simply, as he puts it, “to win.” Win what? Oh, I get it, that’s the point. What a silly imperialist I am.

In the course of trying to win for no reason, the CIA kills people with black bags over their heads and uses bombs to blow up cars in the street. Any of this sound familiar? At all? Like from the recent past? There’s something peculiar about a culture which, faced with a terrible enemy, makes movies depicting the enemy’s wretched crimes, but ascribing that behavior instead to their native land.

I haven’t seen this movie yet but plan to do so. My wife and I enjoyed the first two installments very much and own them on DVD. But I’m with Last here: ham handed anti-Americanism in American pop culture is quite bizarre.

The CIA run amok is a stock plot device, really, and is arguably more anti-Big Government than anti-American. But the easy moral equivalency between the United States and our enemies is beyond banal; it’s insulting and dispiriting.

FILED UNDER: Movie Reviews, Popular Culture, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dentists says:

    Anti Americanism…
    If this is the case with this movie then they should ban it for disrespect to the country.

  2. Rick DeMent says:

    Well I think seeing anti-Americanism behind every corner, in every movie, and in just about everything is getting trite and predictable. From the disruption in the post it sounds more like the plot has more to do with an Ahab and the whale plot then ham handed anti-Americanism.

    And also it’s not like the CIA doesn’t have a history of terrorists-like activity in it’s past. That “trite” characterization is earned not form some inherent institutional quality but rather the nature of the work that tends to spawn Ahab like mindsets among some individuals from time to time.

  3. Rick DeMent says:

    Er that should have been … from the “description” in the post.

    Anti Americanism…
    If this is the case with this movie then they should ban it for disrespect to the country.

    and who gets to decide if it’s “Anti American” … you?

    What is “Anti American” anyway, any criticism of America at all? Going have to ban a truck load of stuff.

  4. Anderson says:

    Dudes, read Jane Mayer on the CIA’s black sites, and then get back to me on what the CIA plausibly will or won’t do, okay?

    I would have imagined OTB would be a little more interested in Mayer’s article than in what some movie says about the CIA. But to each his own.

  5. Jim Henley says:

    James, I’ll be interested in hearing what you think once you see the movie. To me, “anti-American” is best reserved for works that find irredeemable sickness in the citizenry. The Bourne movies don’t remotely do that.

    It is very much in the recent revival of the “paranoid thriller” tradition from the 70s, though, along with, in their different ways, “Shooter” and “The Good Shepherd.”

    Bourne may cut too close to home for Last (home being the waterboy’s end of the GWOT team bench) because, without dwelling on it, it becomes very much a post-9/11 movie in the recruitment scene. It’s a neat trick, since the first movie, with its assassinating African politicos plotline, very much showed its 70s roots.

  6. C.Wagener says:

    I know there are a lot of brave people in the CIA, but I think the majority are ineffectual bureaucrats parked 8 hours a day in Aeron chairs. If we had any rogue spies willing to do anything to win perhaps a c-17 of mix and match WMD could have been flown into Iraq. And why wouldn’t Chavez’s head be on a pike by now?

    And as an aside, is The New Yorker really something worth siting? Did Keith Olberman or Dan Rather have nothing to say?

  7. Andy says:

    Anti Americanism…
    If this is the case with this movie then they should ban it for disrespect to the country.

    Nothing says American values like banning content you disagree with!

    (Excellent spoofing, btw.)

  8. Anderson says:

    And as an aside, is The New Yorker really something worth siting?

    Well, everyone has to be somewhere, don’t they?

  9. Monica says:

    …the easy moral equivalency between the United States and our enemies is beyond banal; it’s insulting and dispiriting

    The same thing was done in V for Vendetta. In that movie the Koran was a forbidden book that you would be arrested and killed for having – when in reality this is what Saudi Arabia does for a person having a Bible. Bizarre world we live in when our enemies (and yes I consider Saudia Arabia to be one of our enemies) terrible traits are attributed to us by our friends in Hollywood.

  10. Anderson says:

    Re: Henley’s

    It is very much in the recent revival of the “paranoid thriller” tradition from the 70s,

    to the best I recall of those 70s thrillers, they were touchingly idealistic not only in their faith in the American people, but in their elected representatives.

    Sure, you’d have an evil senator here & there, but the idea that The Big Evil Secret Plot had been approved by cabinet secretaries and signed off on by the President himself — like the black sites? Not so much.

    The Ludlum thrillers, and AFAIK their movie adaptations (haven’t seen # 3 yet), focus more on the “rogue agency” treatment. When will we start getting “rogue presidency” thrillers? Or will those be documentaries?

  11. davod says:

    Anderson: The rogue President films will be crockumentaries. Mind you, the first will win an Oscar for best documentary.

  12. Triumph says:

    I love how everyone is getting upset over Anti-Americanism in this stupid movie when we had MSNBC broadcasting the REAL Anti-American blather of the Democrat presidential candidates on TV last night!

  13. Anderson says:

    Davod is more confident than Reagan’s commandant of Marines from 1983-87, who has publicly opined that the President has signed off on violations of Common Article 3, or “war crimes” as they used to be called, back before the Geneva Conventions were “quaint.” And that of course is just a recent example, compared to the still-secret machinations that led to the torture of prisoners by the CIA in 2002 & thereafter.

  14. Tano says:

    James makes allusion to an interesting point.

    When “liberals” criticize actions taken by the government in the name of America, it is called “anti-Americanism”.

    When conservatives criticize actions taken by the government in the name of America, it is called “anti-big-government”.

  15. r says:

    Maybe it’s dispiriting to you. But I don’t identify with the American gov’t, certainly not when it self-righteously and in an irony-free way advocates straightforward torture as the moral high ground; and insists dissent is treason, and rewards gross incompetence and reflexively bashes knowledge and reason (evolution, climate science, etc).

    Bourne is pro-knowledge, pro-thinking, pro-foresight; hardly virtues of the past six years. He takes responsibility, our gov’t self-righteously won’t, under any circumstances, do the same.

    I see the Bourne movies as a metaphor for America having lost its way, and then waking up mid-nightmare and deciding, bravely, to step back from torture and lawlessness, to atone and do what is right.

    It is an anti-government movie, but the spirit of Bourne, who is undeniably a good and decent American, who fights and protects – he helps a Brit reporter after all, he atones for his murder to a Russian girl, etc – Bourne has a soul and a conscience and is strong and competent-

    these are American values. Just not virtues of the Bush admin. Only a callow reading of the movie allows it to be anti-American. Like so many conservatives, you misunderstand anti-torture and anti-rendition as anti-American. No. THOSE latter things are the ones that are anti-American.

    It’s as American as you can get; a religious country that proudly trumpets its religiosity could hardly claim that atonement and making amends are un-American. Esp. if you buy Evangelical rhetoric, and to be Christian is to BE American (and vice versa)- then his atonement is political to the core, and he is a true American – flawed but self-correcting and diligently seeking his way, from his own moral compass.

    Conservatives used to understand – Any criticism of the US is America bashing; it’s tedious and depressing, as is your critique of the Bourne movies.

    What better film – a film about a private religious awakening in the midst of what may be the third Great Awakening in US history?

    I could go on and on; but I won’t. I think my perspective is far more compelling than your by the numbers conservative anti-hollywood script.

    Bourne chose with his eyes wide open to numb himself morally to win – to obey. We’ve had enough of both sentiments, look where it got us with Iraq. We’re drowning in the consequences of that initial righteous ignroance. Enough.

    Celebrate the thinking, pentitent American who is born to act, to do, and is unafraid to turn back and keep seeking a higher goal than mere victory at all costs against a forever enemy.


  16. Stormy70 says:

    I had heard this Bourne was a really good movie, but I won’t go see a movie that uses the shaky camera technique. I want to see the action, not a blur of the action.

    I thought the last two Bourne movies were good movies, but completely forgettable.

    Keep the camera still, Hollywood.

  17. Anjin-San says:


    If you were a citizen of Iraq who’s grandmother wife or child had been blow to bits during “shock & awe” do you think you might have a different take on moral equivalency?