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On the run again: (l-r) Damon and Stiles in The Bourne Ultimatum.

Super Man

By Ann Morrow

The Bourne Ultimatum

Directed by Paul Greengrass

Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is alive and mobile—and how. In the third installment of what can now be called the Bourne movies, the amnesiac CIA renegade is on the loose in Morocco, and London, and New York City, searching for his real identity and “the source” of how he became a highly trained killer. The CIA also is looking for the source, and the agency heavies (David Strathairn and Joan Allen) want to get to it before Bourne does. As Bourne learns from a journalist (Paddy Considine) who has been tracking down his past, the source is a top-secret op called Blackbriar.

Paul Greengrass, who took over from Doug Liman (The Bourne Identity) to direct the sequel, The Bourne Supremacy, continues the espionage saga created by novelist Robert Ludlum (and co-adapted by Tony Gilroy) with a propulsive sense of urgency. Bourne’s unpredictable trajectory and his skills as an assassin generate dissension within the CIA that provokes rash decisions resulting in the deaths of civilians. Greengrass, a master of the docudrama (Bloody Sunday, United 93) creates a mood of extreme tension that combines the cool-headed ruthlessness of Cold War spy novels with the paranoia of techno thrillers. The trilogy’s neatest trick, Bourne calling his pursuers from a cell phone while spying on them, is repeated here in escalating variations. Most of the action is conveyed with jittery or blurry cinematography: Bourne’s martial-arts showdown with an agency hit man is shown from the perspective of the combatants as a blur of pure-adrenaline kinetics.

The highly styled camera work eventually gets tiresome, but it’s offset by the low-key line readings, for clandestine immediacy, of the agency schemers. The counterpoint is Bourne’s stringent emotional responses; early on, he has to break the news to her brother (Daniel Brühl) that Marie (Franka Potente) is dead, a sequence shown in vaporish flashbacks from The Bourne Supremacy while Damon does some of the most affecting acting of the film. Julia Stiles’ role as CIA agent Nicky Parsons heats up as a potential collaborator—or betrayer.

Bourne’s unstoppable ingenuity may stretch credulity more than in the first two installments, but leads to a bang-up ending that both concludes the trilogy and leaves a loophole for the next Bourne.

War Story

Rescue Dawn

Directed by Werner Herzog

The Vietnam War/prisoner-of- war rescue film was a popular mini-genre in the 1980s and ’90s, from big-studio flicks like Uncommon Valor to straight-to-video slice-and-dice actioners with sub-Jean-Claude Van Dammes in the leading roles. Most shared the same right-wing political fantasy: If it weren’t for treasonous journalists, cowardly politicians and dirty fucking hippies, the United States would not only have won the Vietnam War, but hundreds of POWs wouldn’t have been left behind to rot in bamboo prisons. (Expect this genre to be reborn in an Iraqi setting in the ’10s.)

The first scenes in a Laotian prison camp in Werner Herzog’s affecting Rescue Dawn explode the latter part of this fantasy in sobering fashion. The POWs we see are dead men walking—this true story is set in 1965, and the idea that these physically wrecked men could survive decades in the jungle, never mind make an escape, is absurd.

The film isn’t, however, an anti- Vietnam War screed: American soldiers are portrayed sympathetically, as professionals doing a job. Herzog’s dispassionate view is centered on the torturous journey of one U.S. pilot, and the essential hell that is war—and the horrors war makes people capable of inflicting.

Herzog first told the story of Dieter Dengler in a documentary a few years ago. Dengler was a German kid who lived through the destruction of World War II, then grew up to be a Navy pilot who was shot down over Laos. Using his considerable skills—and buoyed by an almost insane natural optimism—Dengler escaped and made his way to freedom. You can’t blame the obsessive old German for revisiting this harrowing story, given his opportunity to work with equally obsessive young Brit actor Christian Bale as Dieter.

The film begins with Dengler’s ill-fated first mission, as part of a top-secret (i.e. illegal) bombing of Vietnamese guerrillas over the border in Laos. Dengler crashes, and is quickly taken prisoner. The horrors he faces are as simple as they are vicious, but Dengler endures them and is deposited in the aforementioned POW camp.

There he meets a motley assortment of anti-Communist Vietnamese and Americans, including Duane (Steve Zahn, superb) and Gene (Jeremy Davies). The dehumanizing conditions and deliberate cruelty are as old as war itself, and as shocking as ever. And, no surprise, director Herzog lets these dedicated method actors get deep into the emotional and physical misery; Davies is so emaciated it’s horrifying. It works, though, because however deep into character the actors go—Bale wolfing down a dinner of wriggling maggots, Davies muttering like a madman—Herzog’s impassive, clinical gaze provides the proper distance.

This is an antiwar movie in the most intellectual, dispassionate sense. The film raises a simple question: Why in hell was the United States at war in Southeast Asia? And the fact that Dieter has to be “rescued” a second time at the very end of the picture—from a far different “enemy”—provides an answer with a painfully contemporary resonance.

—Shawn Stone

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