To the extent that film records and reflects the shifting attitudes of the culture that produces it, the Jason Bourne franchise has been a snapshot of growing disillusionment with the American government, war, and covert intelligence gathering in the first decades of the 21st century.

Many of the films of 2003 (the year in which the U.S. invaded Iraq) centered on an outnumbered but morally upright group defending freedoms in the face of an external threat: The Alamo, Master and Commander, The Last Samurai, The Matrix Revolutions, and The Return of the King.

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross

Then 2004 brought a shift in attitudes toward the war and those who had conceived, fought, and sold it. Pictures of detainees at the Abu Gharib prison were leaked. Vanity Fair published a widely publicized and influential article on "The Path to War," questioning the evidence for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Films took a more cynical attitude toward war and those who waged it. Troy imagined Achilles as a noble fighter disgusted by the ineffectual and corrupt leaders who used him for their own ends; when he tied the body of a defeated foe to the back of a chariot and dragged it around the city, American audiences squirmed, not quite sure with whom to identify: the arrogant conqueror or the fallen defender of his home and family. The Bourne Supremacy concluded with an elite assassin apologizing to the daughter of his first victims followed by a cut to the New York skyline (sans Twin Towers), symbolically suggesting a link between the terrorist attacks and covert, immoral actions of government agencies that terrorized the world and brought pushback to our soil. No matter, Jason Bourne was about to go from being "off the grid" to being a rogue agent bringing vengeance and accountability to the architects of black operations.

The central structural problem facing the Bourne films is how to sustain sympathy for the agents themselves while distancing them from the agencies that created and command them. The Bourne Legacy is, if possible, even more cynical about government than its predecessors. It is revealed that Treadstone, the program that created Jason Bourne, was actually only one of several different programs designed to create an elite, secret corps of field operatives serving the intelligence community. Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) is part of Outcome, a program that chemically and genetically manipulates its agents in order to enhance their physical abilities and mental acuity. Legacy begins where The Bourne Ultimatum left off. When public revelations about Treadstone threaten to compromise other covert operations, Col. Eric Byer (Edward Norton) decides to temporarily shut down Outcome, eliminating the agents in it but keeping the medical data so the program can be rebooted at a later date.

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Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing

Rachel Weisz as Dr. Marta Shearing

Killing superspies turns out to be a little harder than making them—who would have thought? Once Cross uses his skills to survive, he, like Bourne before him, begins a journey to get answers from those who made but eventually disavowed him. The core of these films are the double-stalking narratives. Aaron, just like Bourne, tries to get answers about his origins and solutions for how to get his handlers to leave him alone; Byer and his minions try to capture or kill Aaron before he destroys what they perceive they have worked for.

Women usually play the role of audience/societal surrogate in the Bourne films, allowing us to align ourselves with the more (self) righteous agents of vengeance rather than with the callow administrators who justify their corruption by pontificating about the public good. In the first film, that role was filled by Franka Potente as a civilian inadvertently swept up in the intrigue, but who recognizes an inherent goodness in Jason that struggles against his training. When Jason apologizes to the Russian daughter in the second film, he is really apologizing to us, telling us that we were all victims of self-serving lies the government told. In Legacy, the surrogate is Dr. Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a kind-hearted but misguided virologist who tries to claim that she was just in the Outcome program for the science and had no idea how the chemically altered supersoldiers would be utilized. Probably the best scene in the film is one in which Cross challenges her—and through her, us—on the claim that support of the corrupt program and government was for benign motives. How could she not know, or at least suspect, to what end her work would be used?

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross

Jeremy Renner as Aaron Cross

Unfortunately that scene ends abruptly and the theme of civilian complicity is never explored thoroughly. Byer and his staff are so evil and so aggressive in covering their tracks that Shearing never has any real choices to make about where to cast her lot. For her, like Cross, it is about staying alive. The first half of the film is essentially a setup for a long chase in the second. (And it is a very, very long chase, with enough of the requisite shaky camera work to induce a migraine in all but the most seasoned video game players.) As in most Bourne films, the showcase chase is intricately staged and not without skill in their execution, but chases are only as interesting as our emotional investment in those in them. Here that investment is minimal and generic. We can't help but root for Cross because Byer is evil and trying to kill him. That is reason enough, but it is not as though he stands for anything that we might actually embrace and wish to see triumph as opposed to merely survive.

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Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. What does Byer mean when he says he and Cross are "sin eaters"? Do you agree?
  2. Marta claims that she was only interested in science and didn't make "policy"? How credible does Aaron find her protestation that she did not know what he and his colleagues were doing?
  3. Why is the film called The Bourne Legacy? What is Jason Bourne's legacy and how does it affect the characters in the film?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

The Bourne Legacy is rated PG-13 for violence and action sequences. There is one sustained scene in which a worker shoots lab technicians, execution style. Other violence includes chase scenes with destruction of property. Several extras are injured or killed during hand-to-hand combat scenes. Cross fights with a wolf in the wild during one intense scene. Renner is shown wearing just underwear in one scene, but there is no sex or nudity in the film.

The Bourne Legacy
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(6 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
PG-13 (for violence and action sequences)
Directed By
Tony Gilroy
Run Time
2 hours 15 minutes
Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton
Theatre Release
August 10, 2012 by Universal Pictures
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