Ultimately Entertaining

So the entertainment conveyor belt finally brought this past summer's hit The Bourne Ultimatum into view, and I have to say I enjoyed it. I think my favorite of the three films is probably the second; the first has to spend a lot of time setting up the character and the situation, and so seems a bit slow-paced at times. The third is "non-stop action" in that way that studios seem to think is good but that any self-respecting person who isn't a dramamine addict thinks is actually bad. Also, it never met a camera move it didn't like enough to chop up into several quick cuts and throw at the viewer in quick succession.

Bourne gets referred to a lot as a "thinking Man's Bond" which is a pretty fair assessment. Still, for a person with a reasonable amount of technical knowledge and aptitude there are a lot of places that severely strain your ability to maintain suspension of disbelief.

Warning: There are spoilers for the Bourne movies in this article!

There are a couple of lines that will make any self-respecting techie groan. Julia Stiles as Nicky Parsons might be prettier than any Bond girl in recent memory, but she sure doesn't know what "firewall" means. That's the kind of technical detail that most movies flub and don't really seem to care about. They want a technical term that's common enough for people to have heard of, but something they aren't really familiar enough with to know concretely what it is, but is vaguely suggestive of the idea they are trying to get across. So when Parsons is trying to get information from the CIA's computer network over her laptop and the request is denied, the script throws her the word "firewall" to use for this situation, and anyone who knows what the word really means just curls up into a fetal ball on the theater floor and rocks back and forth gently. Speaking of which, those floors really are dirty. Shame on you people.

However this isn't the kind of flaw that runs rife through this picture; it's something much larger. It's difficult to watch this film, in contrast to the previous two, without feeling strongly that it vastly overstates what is technically (or politically) feasible in the realm of electronic intelligence at the current time or in the immediately forseeable future. Alternately, there are scenes in which the most basic techniques are either forgotten or ignored because the script requires it, which is maddening.

Some of the bits that caught my attention were, in no particular order:

If the closed circuit television cameras at London's Waterloo train station are accessible within minutes, in realtime, to a branch of the CIA, then it isn't really "closed" in any meaningful sense of the word. I know that video can be digitized and sent over data networks. I realize the CIA probably has bandwidth bleeding out its ears. However, I tend to think that such a camera system is probably only for local use. I'm not sure why it would be connected either to a public network CIA agents could break into, or tied into a law enforcement network that the UK's own intelligence apparatus would allow an ally access to without so much as a warrant.

Even if you believe that the latter is plausible, that plausibility goes away when you realize that the reason the CIA is accessing that system is so that they can assassinate a UK citizen. When they take another step and not only see the videos on those cameras, but remotely shut them down just before the kill shot, any and all suspension of disbelief simply goes away.

Although I'm no expert, the little I read about the Echelon system that apparently monitors worldwide phone conversations, it was designed to work on satellite communications. Why it would pick up a mobile phone conversation between a UK journalist in London and his London office is really beyond me. Perhaps BT extends its Echelon participation to include all traffic on all of its networks. However, that doesn't explain why Bourne is able to conceal his conversation with the reporter simply by calling him on a different land line. Where did Echelon go?

When Bourne arrives at the CIA safehouse in Madrid, the team sent in includes a guy with what appears to be a gun with a side-mounted LCD screen. Back in the US, in the Blackbriar headquarters, the bad guy watches the progress.

I couldn't figure out what bothered me about the scene until I re-watched it. It's this: there is no damn reason I can think of why that gun would have an LCD monitor on it. It's there only to visually demonstrate to the audience that this is where the camera is without spending any extra screen time. Since the guy holding the gun has to point it at what he wants to shoot, he isn't using the LCD to frame his video footage. Since the idea of putting a camera into a gun would be to affect its performance the least in terms of size and weight, you would immediately discard a viewfinder or LCD screen or anything else so superfluous.

When Bourne inevitably defeats those baddies and is surprised by Parsons arriving in the office, the CIA inexplicably decides to ring the phone in the safehouse. Why they do this is beyond me. They don't know Parsons is there or on her way there. A second strike team is on its way but won't arrive yet for several minutes. Given that the first team has been disabled and the live audio and video cut off, it's reasonable to assume that they aren't able to pick up the phone. If they were, and had been cut off by technical difficulties, surely they could pick up the phone and call themselves. If, as is the case, headquarters suspected that Bourne was on site, he's certainly not going to pick up the phone. No, this is done so that Bourne can force Parsons to answer the phone, which gives her a chance to demonstrate her loyalty to Bourne by betraying her evil boss.

That's not really the problem with that scene, though. The problem is that while the CIA so far has been able to intercept mobile phone communications and closed circuit security camera feeds without authorization in order to kill the citizens of allied nations, they apparently don't have a security alarm worth a damn in their own safehouse, as well as no eavesdropping equipment in their own offices. I realize Nixon's tape recorders came around to bite him in the ass in the end, but certainly the first place you'd bug would be the place you have the best access to. But no; Bourne seemingly disables all the security simply by cutting the power-- nevermind that even the cheapest systems I've ever seen have built-in battery backups-- and once the guy with the cameragun is down the CIA apparently has less of an idea of what's going on in its own southern European headquarters than it does in the busiest train terminal in England. Huh.

There are plenty of other instances where Bourne gets into places and does things that probably no real live agent can do today, but that's because he's a badass. Those things I can accept because they've created a persuasive and sympathetic character that the audience wants to see succeed. However, the satisfaction one derives from his success is somewhat lessened when the odds against him are alternatively stacked by unrealistic capabilities and evened by unconscionable incompetence on the part of his opponents.