Saturday, August 04, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

The third movie in the Jason Bourne saga opened in theaters last night, and unlike many third movies in a series it managed to maintain all of the qualities that made its two predecessors, the Bourne Identity and the Bourne Supremacy, box office hits. "Ultimatum" has all of the suspense, intensity, and non-stop action of the first two movies.

The plotline remains just feasible enough to nourish the viewer's inner conspiracy theorist while holding his inner skeptic at bay. It's a plotline that appeals to the anti-American audience's prejudices while leaving room for a pro-American audience to stay engaged. A CIA rogue assassination program, codenamed Blackbriar, is in danger of being blown, and the program's director as well as Jason Bourne engage in a race to find the source of the leak, for different reasons: the director in order to keep the program from being exposed, and Bourne in order to retrieve his true identity and to understand how he came to become Jason Bourne.

The true skeptic has to wonder at some of the implausible elements, such as the ability of CIA hackers in their control room in New York to tap into and control surveillance cameras in London's Waterloo train station. But it is a scenario that perfectly taps into a technically unsophisticated public's fears of intrusive and ubiquitous surveillance technologies. The reality of the CIA's worldwide surveillance operations are both less frightening and more. With the thousands of wiretapped conversations that are recorded by the CIA and NSA in pursuit of terrorists, it takes months for trained analysts to sift through them and produce actionable intel. Comforting for the average paranoid citizen worried about being swept up in an overzealous anti terror campaign, frightening for those of us who want that anti terror campaign to be more effective.

But for all the advanced technological wizardry at the disposal of the Blackbriar program's director, he is helpless at mastering the situation because of the human element beyond his control: Jason Bourne and his intimate knowledge of CIA techniques, and his uncanny ability to thwart every move that they make. The movie is a perfect illustration of the "OODA Loop", a decision-making process developed within the US Air Force which stands for "Observe, Orient, Decide, Act". The OODA Loop posits that decisions are only as effective as the information that they are based upon, and as that information becomes obsolete by unfolding actions on the battlefield, the decisions based on that information must be adjusted in the face of new information. The side that can make decisions more quickly based on the latest, most accurate data will have the advantage.

Bourne thwarts his enemy's actions by quickly assessing or predicting his pursuers intentions and then taking actions which change the assumptions upon which those actions were based. He is able to "obsolete" the information from the CIA's sophisticated surveillance and communications network moments before the realization of the decisions based on that information. His "OODA Loop" is quicker than theirs, and he maintains the advantage throughout the movie, but just barely. And that makes for a relentless thrill ride.

The movie demonstrates the downside of the power enabled by technological mastery when it is wedded to human arrogance. The director of the Blackbriar program has awesome technological assets at his disposal, as well as a worldwide network of crack assassins who can be activated at a moments notice. He works with a very tight OODA loop, tighter than any of the targets he is pursuing, or any of the police forces or governments of the nations his operatives cover. He has learned to make snap life or death decisions without the luxury of reflection or conscience. But when an enemy gets inside that OODA loop, the speed of his actions mean that his operation comes unraveled just as quickly. Watching his mounting frustration, desperation and fear as his world comes crashing down is delicious, a high tech comeuppance for an evil control freak reduced to impotence.

Five stars. Go see this movie!


Blogger Mike Beversluis said...

I enjoyed the fight and chase scenes, although there was more shaky-cam going on than in the first, but man, a lot of the story felt implausibly dumb to me.

Not to spoil anything, but if someone, say, had just shot a journalist you had leaked secrets to - would you immediately wire yourself money, in your name, to your escape destination, and then travel there under your passport, and then stay at a hotel under your name? Really? And you were a station chief with wide-spread knowledge about everything?

Etc and so forth; If that doesn't bother you, then by all means. Personally, I'd just go rent the first again (or Smiley's People).

PS. What is a Supremacy? The Eiger Sanction made more sense.

August 04, 2007 11:55 AM  

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