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Me and Jason Bourne

    Author of the Bourne series of books Robert Ludlum

    Dare I compare myself with Jason Bourne? We may seem like an unlikely pair considering Jason Bourne is a sharp shooting fictional character in an American spy thriller and I am a pacifist woman living a quiet life in Australia. Yet what we share is waking up one time with no idea who we were, in other words, a case of amnesia. 1. Bourne’s memory loss story has been a famous and highly lucrative one. Yet increasingly Bourne’s characterisation, and the marketing behind him has come under heavy criticism. Read more about critical responses.

    Robert Ludlum’s inspiration for Bourne

    Bourne’s amnesia was first introduced to the reading public in the opening scene of the novel The Bourne Identity (1980) by Robert Ludlum (pictured left) when Jason Bourne is hauled out of the water into a French fishing boat. This scene is replicated in the film of the same name released in 2002.

    Mat Damon plays Jason Bourne in a promotion for the Bourne series

    Already a spy thriller writer, Ludlum was inspired to create the Bourne character after he experienced a case of 12-hour amnesia. 2. Today, the Bourne franchise is a gigantic entity, the films alone grossing over $1.6 billion to date.

    The Bourne franchise

    By mid-2021 the Bourne franchise consists of:

    • three novels (Robert Ludlum)
    • 11 novels (Eric Van Lustbader)
    • one novel (Brian Freeman)
    • six films for cinema
    • two further films for television, a video and a tourist attraction named The Bourne Stuntacular (2020).

    Impressive, having a tourist attraction in one’s name!

    Shooting prowess

    For an urban Australian citizen like myself, mastery over a gun is not a requirement, though I once visited a friend on her dairy farm in Cooma, in rural New South Wales, where guns are used for shooting roos. She set me up with her rifle and a tin can on a post in a paddock.
    ‘Now shoot the bloody thing’, she said. She had a good laugh when I fired, lost my balance and the target remained unscathed. In contrast, Jason Bourne in action demonstrates mastery over 16 makes of firearm, as his fan website testifies. 3

    Matt Damon as Jason Bourne on the cover of the film collection

    How Bourne’s memory loss works

    An unconscious man is hauled from the ocean by fishermen, after sustaining gunshot wounds. When he wakes he has no idea who he is or any other biographical information about himself. He has an implant under his skin with information regarding a particular bank in Zurich. He eventually goes to the bank and there finds through the contents of a safety deposit box that one of his names is Jason Bourne. He has other identities as well, on multiple passports. Still not knowing who he is, as the plot unfolds, Bourne is shocked and as critic, Mary T. Hartson suggests, increasingly ashamed,4 about what he can do. He finds he is handy with a gun, good at martial arts and he can use both these to kill. He can speak multiple languages, he can rapidly disassemble and reassemble a firearm, he can disarm and incapacitate gun-wielding gendarmes, as well as drive a car at high speed to escape his pursuants. Says Jason Bourne, while alarmed about what he can do (Bourne Identity, film):

    I can tell you the license plate numbers of all six cars outside. I can tell you that our waitress is left-handed and the guy sitting up at the counter weighs two hundred fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know the best place to look for a gun is the cab of the gray truck outside, and at this altitude, I can run flat out for a half mile before my hands start shaking. Now why would I know that? How can I know that and not know who I am?

    Jason Bourne will turn out to be what is called ‘an asset’ by CIA members. He is a trained assassin, a man who kills when ordered to kill. Yet he has gone rogue, and those from the secret wing of the CIA who trained him have become his enemies.

    Is Bourne’s amnesia accurate?

    I had a severe case of amnesia myself in 1991 called retrograde amnesia. After waking in a Sydney hospital without having a clue who I was or where, my mother told me my husband would be visiting soon. Shocking news, for the young girl I thought I was. I happened to be 30 at the time. My case of amnesia was acquired after neurosurgery and meningitis.

    From my experience and my research, I believe Bourne’s amnesia is plausible. While he doesn’t know who he is he can do a range of high-level things. In other words, is his ‘procedural’ memory is working while his autobiographical memory is not. I experienced something similar. An article in The Conversation corroborates my view:

    The Bourne machismo

    From the moment Bourne wakes, he displays a mastery over guns and his environment in every moment. For a ‘malfunctioning’ asset from the CIA, Bourne plays out a highly functioning archetypically ‘masculine’ performance. While his characterisation is softened to some degree by his not knowing who he is and his intermittent questioning about his identity, he nevertheless operates as a spectacle of militaristic male competence for the viewer/reader. I find the Jason Bourne character troubling in that his representation offers a style of masculinity common to action films: the trained military man as an efficient killing machine. The knee-jerk reflex that has him resorting to violent action when under threat is a consistent trait. It is chilling in the current context, particularly as I write this in the year that marks the murder of George Floyd.

    Critical responses

    In 2009, Australian reviewer David Stratton said that the film The Bourne Identity was an unusually intelligent adaptation of the original book. “This is one of those films in which a rogue CIA operative is the main villain; after September 11 (2001) it’s interesting that Hollywood can still present such a critical picture of its nation’s security agency.” 6 Stratton’s response seems characteristic of critics in that era. In the film, many of the villains are actually CIA agents themselves, which did seem to appeal to viewers and critics alike at the time.

    However, writer Owen Strachan argues that Bourne’s masculinity is both dangerous and complicated. He says:

    He has discovered that he can kill and injure at will, but unlike other action characters, this realization brings him no joy, but only pain. It is ironic, then, that a part of what makes the movie so entertaining is Bourne’s amazing ability to fight and, when necessary, kill. Where he recoils at himself, we grow excited.

    Indeed, Strachan says, even while Bourne’s character questions his acts of violence, the viewer is handed scene after scene of that very highly produced screen violence to consume.

    Matt Damon says he understands the criticism he’s received for the “Jason Bourne” ad as the nation deals with recent gun violence. (Susan Watts/New York Daily News)

    The grand irony of Bourne in 2016

    In 2016, responses to the then-latest Bourne film and its promotion were far more critical of Bourne’s portrayal given the social context of the Black Lives Matter movement. In an article published in Salon titled The Bourne Masculinity: Matt Damon’s hyper-aggressive, emotionally fragile ‘good guy with a gun,’ writer Eileen G’Sell says Bourne is a “traumatized hero as an emblem of unapologetic white-male violence”.8

    “The grand irony of Bourne 2016 is that a protagonist meant to represent the psychological ravages of violence has become a public emblem of uncontested (and unapologetic) white masculine power,” she says.
    She acknowledges that in one film in the series, Ultimatum, Bourne does not do his killing with a gun but with a form of efficient jiu-jitsu. However, 2016 was the year of the public poster subway campaign which did represent Bourne wielding a gun.

    The poster campaign

    Specifically, the 2016 publicity campaign involved posters in the subways of New York, which created controversy and protest. A social media campaign urged people to start ripping down these posters depicting Bourne with a gun.

    Another writer Erin Mary Doyle says:

    Jason Bourne is drawing criticism with people vandalising the subway ads depicting Matt Damon in character, with an outstretched arm holding a gun. People in New York have taken offence to the image, especially with the debate around police militarisation and gun control in the US.
    Actor Matt Damon playing Jason Bourne

    In 2016 there were calls for tougher gun laws as the Damon poster controversy raged. The actor Matt Damon, who often plays Jason Bourne, conducted a press conference to promote the film in Australia he called for the US gun laws to change:

    You guys did it here in one fell swoop [in 1996] and I wish that could happen in my country, but it’s such a personal issue for people that we cannot talk about it sensibly.

    As Matt Damon, the public’s preferred actor for the character of Jason Bourne, grows older, and the world-wises up to the role of the US police in discrimination on the streets, it will be interesting to see what happens to Jason Bourne. Will he get old? Will he lose favour? Will the franchise lose its market popularity?


    1. Some critics claim Bourne is in a fugue state, but I align with those who refer to his condition as amnesia.
    2. Ludlum gave two interviews to Don Swaim of CBS: in 1984 and then two years later in 1986. Ludlum discusses how he came up with the first two novels in the Jason Bourne trilogy – The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy. The idea behind the Bourne trilogy came after he had a bout of temporary amnesia. After his first book, The Scarlatti Inheritance was published, he could not remember 12 hours of his life. This event, combined with thrilling real-life spy stories [like that of the Jackal], inspired him to write the Jason Bourne trilogy. Wikipedia.
    4. The Bourne Refusal; Changing the Rules of the Game? Hartson, Mary T Screening Images of American Masculinity in the Age of Postmodernism. Ed Abele E and Gronbec-Tedesco, J. Published 2016.
    8. G’sell, Eileen. The Bourne Masculinity: Matt Damon’s hyper-aggressive, emotionally fragile “good guy with a gun”. The saga of Jason Bourne, traumatized hero as an emblem of unapologetic white-male violence, turns 14 with a new film. JULY 30, 2016
    9. Doyle, Erin Mary. JULY, 2016. ALSO SEE Bacardi, Francesca. Matt Damon and Julia Stiles React to Lena Dunham’s Jason Bourne Gun Poster Protest. July 20, 2016.
    The Bourne Identity Robert Ludlum