An ode to the women of the ‘Bourne’ movies

Glance at promotional photos from the Bourne films, and you'll see something like this:

Photo credit: Universal Studios

And this:

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Those production stills may lead you to believe this espionage series largely features a dominant dude pushing around a helpless woman. That couldn”t be further from the truth. 

Jason Bourne is unmatched in the field – as a fighter, as a quick thinker – but the women who are along for the ride, who support Bourne, and/or who butt heads with him bring their essential skills and qualities to the table, and, played by talented actresses, make this series a captivating thrill to watch more than Matt Damon ever could on his own.

SPOILERS AHEAD for all five Bourne movies, including the conclusion of new film Jason Bourne.

For a series that had next to no women onscreen in its first 14 minutes (not until Bourne gets to the Zurich bank is there a woman who is in the foreground, speaking), it”s laudatory that Tony Gilroy and co. delivered a collection of female characters who have a major, consistent presence in the franchise (long enough for them to develop and grow as characters), not a quickly revolving door of ladies who come in and out from our spy hero”s life. These women are intelligent and courageous, some calm and collected, some a total mess, some compassionate, some more selfish, always fully clothed – all in all, a refreshing departure from the Bond girls of the spy franchise that came before them.

Damon recently told GQ Magazine, “I like Bourne better than Bond. Bourne has today”s values; Bond has the values of the 1960s. Daniel [Craig]”s Bond has upgraded him and brought him more into the present, but, classically, that character is a misogynist.”

The character of Jason Bourne gives these women the space to be their awesome selves. The other men in the series have plenty of unsavory qualities – but that makes them compelling foils to the women of Bourne.

The men running things at the CIA get worse and worse through the series. Each movie gives us a new male character in charge butting heads with Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), and Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander). Each man is more corrupt with uglier morals than the last, from Chris Cooper”s Alexander Conklin to Brian Cox”s Ward Abbott to David Strathairn”s Noah Vosen to Tommy Lee Jones” Robert Dewey.

They”re men who shoot first, ask questions later, who relish getting rid of “red tape” (red tape that keeps them from using unethical means to complete their missions), who are willing to kill (sometimes with their own hands) their colleagues to protect their reputation and their agenda.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Meanwhile, the women in the CIA – Landy, Parsons, and Lee – take a moment to use their heads and realize that Jason Bourne may not be the threat their male colleagues believe him to be. Landy and Lee both want to bring Bourne in alive – because they believe that it”s the right thing to do, that he doesn”t deserve to be shot on sight but also because they see that Bourne alive could be useful to the CIA.

These women can see shades of gray better than the CIA men in these movies. They want to think things over before making the rash decision. Sure, you can complain that this feeds into a gender norm – the men shoot first, ask questions later – or you can see these films as celebrating and accentuating a real feminine trait.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Another trait commonly attributed to women more so than men – that inclination to talk about feeeelings – develops the key theme of these movies: Identity. Yes, “identity” is only in the title of the first movie, but Bourne”s search for who he is courses through every Matt Damon movie in the series. (Not so much in Bourne Legacy – a harsh critic of that movie and its substitute star would say Aaron Cross is just looking for a fix while Bourne”s searching for his identity.) Pam, Nicky, and Marie all try to help Bourne figure out who he is and what secrets his past holds. They ask him how he”s doing – with words or with their empathetic eyes – and urge him to open up about what he remembers of his past. Sure, sometimes that”s out of their own curiosity. Marie”s along for the ride in Identity for a while probably in part because she too wants to solve the mystery of this mysterious man”s amnesia. But once she and Bourne develop a true affection for each other, in Goa, India, she”s there for him by his side as he wakes up in the middle of the night, haunted by his part-remembered past. Bourne says in Ultimatum that he “can”t be free of this” until he has answers. Marie understands that. Nicky comes to understand that. In Jason Bourne, Nicky dies trying to get Bourne intel about his father and the truth about how he became a part of Treadstone.

Marie develops romantic feelings for Jason even after all he”s put her through. In that alley by the U.S. Embassy in Zurich, she chooses to take the wild risk of letting this strange man into her car and driving him to Paris (scheisse). In the Robert Ludlum”s novel, Bourne takes Marie hostage. Jason and Marie”s relationship would have been pretty different if that remained unchanged from the book. Bourne – while leaving bruised bodies in his wake – is ultimately trying to survive, to get answers, and to do the right thing once he”s on this post-memory loss journey.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Both Franka Potente”s Marie and Rachel Weisz”s Bourne Legacy character, Dr. Marta Shearing, find themselves caring for the dangerous men who have taken them on the run. Marie and Marta represent the “normal” women in this mix, the ones we can relate to because they react to stressful situations with screams and going into shock, who don”t have the training that the women in the CIA do. (Though Marie and Marta each come through with some quick thinking of their own at key moments. And Marta arrives in the franchise with unique skills and smarts in the field of genetics that”s put a target on her back.)

Photo credit: Universal Studios

In Paris, Marie has her chance to leave town in her car, leave Bourne behind. Bourne – in a notable display of emotion that”s a departure from his calm, efficient demeanor – tries to convince Marie to get away from him, to go to the cops. She acts like he”s trying to burn her, but he implores her to go the cops with what she knows, something he assures her is no good for him. “I”m trying to do the right thing for you,” he says.

Marie believes “nobody does the right thing.” But she”s a mess. She doesn”t have much left to lose (apartment, visa, gone). So she puts her trust in Bourne, and she eventually falls for him, because, indeed, he”s trying to do the right thing (and, sure, “cause he”s not bad-looking).

Nicky saw that heart of gold hidden inside the assassin too. She goes from the barely-used CIA functionary in Identity – a field logistics coordinator and agent handler – to an outlaw, on the run from her corrupt agency superiors. In Ultimatum, we get hints that there was some kind of romantic history for Nicky and Jason before he lost his memories.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

“Why are you helping me?” Bourne asks when he and Nicky are sitting in a darkened café after escaping the CIA”s gaze. Nicky looks down, gingerly sets her coffee cup in a saucer to stall a bit before she lets out the words, “It was difficult for me… with you.” Silence between the two. She can”t look at him, then she does, and says, “You really don”t remember anything?”

Once you realize there was that connection between them, it becomes clear just how traumatic it must have been for Nicky when Bourne pointed a gun at her head in Supremacy. She really feared the man she cared about was going to kill her.

Stiles recently filled in some of the blanks in the Nicky-Jason relationship, telling The Daily Beast that the two had crossed paths a few times in the eight years between Ultimatum and Jason Bourne when both are keeping off the grid. She added:

“[Nicky] decides to track [Jason] down because she cares about him and she”s his only ally. And it”s not just the broad politics that she wants to change – she actually personally cares for him and wants to help him get over this guilt that he has about his past, which to me is a nice little piece of humanity in the middle of this.”

I disagree with Stiles” statement that Nicky is Bourne”s only ally, though. Pam Landy becomes an ally to him as well. Landy is frustratingly absent from Jason Bourne. Part of me gets it – she”d dominated the second and third films, and the filmmakers probably felt like they needed a new, young character with a fresh storyline and motive – but I was left wondering where what became of Landy and whether she”s had contact with Bourne again. Perhaps Landy was so fed up with the corruption in the CIA and exhausted by the legal proceedings with Vosen that she decided to take a well-deserved retreat.

27-year-old Alicia Vikander, taking on that fresh blood role in the CIA in Jason Bourne, recognizes how integral the character Pamela Landy is to the Bourne franchise.

“What Joan Allen did – it”s a character I”ve looked up to,” Vikander told me in a phone interview last month, also revealing just how huge of a fan of the Bourne franchise she is.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Landy is such a sharp and cerebral character. Watching her run the room at the CIA is a thrill, and seeing how she handles men like Abbott and Vosen is even more delightful. These men will lob jabs at her, but they appear to roll off her like water off a duck”s back. She tosses back not defenses and excuses and rarely hurls back counter-insults but responds with information – information that tells these men that they will cooperate with her.

“With all due respect, Pam, I think you might have wandered a little past your pay grade,” Abbott says with a smirk when Landy asks about Treadstone.

With nary a flinch, Landy hands Abbott a folder. “That”s a warrant from Director Marshall granting me unrestricted access to all personnel materials associated with Treadstone.”

Landy wants justice for her agents killed in Berlin (a major contrast to Abbott and Dewey, who kill fellow CIA employees to get what they want). At first she”s ready to go after Bourne, when all evidence points to him as the killer, but she doesn”t let her emotions get in the way – she uses her head and realizes that there”s something else going on here.

For all the cool and collected and cerebral Landy is, she reveals that she”s plenty human, with emotions, capable of being scared. She”s calm when Abbott”s pointing a gun at her, but when Abbott suddenly turns the gun on himself, the gunshot provokes a yell from Landy, then, still shaken, an exasperated sigh.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Landy helps Bourne and exposes Blackbriar because “this isn't what I signed up for,” she tells Bourne when they”re finally face-to-face near the end of Ultimatum. “What they did to you. Blackbriar. This isn”t us.”

Heather Lee is filling the Landy hole in Jason Bourne, but she is something of a new animal for the line-up of women in the Bourne franchise. Her motives are murky for much of the movie. Then toward the end, she”s asked pretty directly “what do you want?” by a fellow CIA employee. She wants to climb the ladder at the agency. If bringing Bourne in is the way to get her a promotion, she”ll do that. If taking Bourne out is, that”s what she”ll do. It”s finally clear in that scene Lee hasn”t been just saying she”d be willing to terminate Bourne to appease Dewey. Unfortunately for Lee, Bourne hears that conversation, so he knows that Lee isn”t an ally like Nicky, Marie, and Pam have been for him.

Photo credit: Universal Studios

Lee”s skill set, as a cyber ops chief, is also something new for the franchise.

“She symbolizes a whole new generation of young tech people,” Vikander said, pointing out that Lee”s job didn”t even exist within the CIA at the time Bourne Identity was released. “They”re the people who hold the key to power because we live through technology. We run companies, we run governments, even warfare through it.”

Marie Kreutz, RIP, would have been horrified by the kind of information Lee can easily dig up on people in a privacy-void, post-Snowden 2016.

Jason Bourne ended on a note that leaves room for yet another sequel. (It”s the worst-reviewed Damon movie of the franchise, but it did earn some serious cash at the box office this weekend.) If we do get another installment, I”d like to see more of Heather Lee. And I”d also like to see what a more villainous female character looks like in Bourne”s world. As much as the women of Bourne are worth celebrating for using their heads (and hearts) for good when their male counterparts do not, a woman with ugly motives and methods could add an interesting new dimension to this series. Also: Notably lacking in this franchise are women of color. Casting directors, here”s my recommendation there: Whether friend or foe to Bourne, Gina Torres would be an excellent addition to this franchise. She exudes strength and power both in action (as in Firefly) and in a corporate setting (as in Suits), so I”d love to watch her start off at Langley, then move out into the field.

Whatever the Bourne franchise does next, it better continue its tradition of delivering Bourne girls who are so much smarter, braver, and more kickass than the pantheon of Bond girls.