After audiences growing tired of the well-known formula of James Bond films and the slow decay of the action genre into a never-ending repetition of cliches invented in the 80s and 90s, “The Bourne Identity” kicked off a series, which raised the bar in many ways. It was praised for its exceptional story writing, gritty action and realism and was quite successful with its $214 million of box-office revenue.
But how exactly did this movie achieved its jarring effects?
Was it the shacking camera, which we so strongly associate with breaking news footage? Was it the snappy, well-choreographed action, which refrained from using computer-generated imagery even for dangerous car chases? Or was it the complex story, which folded and twisted around a main character whose mind is as broken as his abilities are superhuman?
However, I would like to point out one factor, which has mainly been neglected so far.
As you might have guessed from the title, we are talking about languages.
Right in the first minutes of the film, the character of Jason Bourne is introduced to us as a sportive, all knowledgeable, many languages speaking bad ass, which sets the tone for what is at that point yet to come.
To those of you who haven’t seen the first movie of the series, I now would like to offer the opportunity to take the time and catch up on one of the best action movies of the millennium.
For those however who know the movie already like the back of their hand or those who dare to venture into unknown realms: Let’s get right to it!
Just a few minutes into the movie our main character arrives in Italy. And even though he doesn’t even know his own name, he is able to travel from the south of the country all the way up to Zurich in Switzerland without a problem – at least as long as you consider two hospitalized policemen not to be a problem. We will get back to that point later though. Throughout the movie, we can see him travel any country confidently and communicating with different people without hitting any language barriers at all. And even though most of you probably are capable of successfully navigating through a foreign country, this is by far not all this nameless polyglot is capable of.
Jason Bourne is adaptable. Quickly adjusting to the situation, he will switch between languages without even thinking. Even when taken by surprise by an old French lady he immediately answers in the right language. Moreover, Jason Bourne can still be seen trying four different languages in a row in an effort to squeeze some information out of his victim after being ambushed by an assassin. Watch the video from minute 1:47 to check if I counted correctly.
This leads us to our next topic. When hunted by an intelligence agency information is the key. And Jason Bourne knows how to acquire it. Whether it is reading street signs, foreign crematory records or the French newspapers, Jason Bourne is on top of it. Not only does it give him the information required to evade his opponents, but lets him understand, which dark secrets linger in his past.
Information leads to knowledge. And this is something our hero has plenty of – apart from his amnesia maybe. Not only can he identify left-handed people by a glance and knows in which car to look for a gun, but he also has high awareness of his surroundings due to his language related skillset. Most of us would probably have to google to find out, where the next American embassy is or which newspaper to buy to get the important information. In the later movies, Jason Bourne even identifies hostile agents by the way they move and dress. For him these are very clear signs, that they don’t fit into the scene.
Deception is one major, if not the main tool for every secret agent. While collecting information, our hero can be seen changing his identity many times. He swiftly switches between English and French and pretends to be the Brother of a so called Mr. Kane. Bourne also owns multiple passports with many different identities, which he uses during travel or to enter an embassy. But what would they be worth, if he wasn’t able to fill the rolls, by speaking the respective languages?
As you can see in the examples above, language can exhibit power in itself, as proven by generations of colonialists who forced their will onto other people by restricting them to a foreign language. Jason Bourne knows about this power and utilizes it to manipulate people to his will. When talking to Marie for the first time in the back alleys of Zurich, he offers her $10,000 for a ride to Paris – Bourne is in control in the first moment, since he is taking action. Out of disbelieve Marie utters in German: “What – do you think I’m a fool?”. With this she dismisses him, by excluding him from his own conversation – or so she thinks. However, being a powerful language-user he answers in the same language: “I don’t think that you are a fool.”, and therefore is right back into the game. (The English subtitles in the YouTube video are actually not accurate to what he says in German.) He also throws over some money for her to hold on to. This pays off later, when she has a hard time giving it back, since she needs it.
But deception and control only work, if you have a strong theory of mind. To lie to someone effectively you need to have an idea about what they know and what they don’t know. Jason Bourne however has not only a strong theory of mind in his own language, but also is capable and flexible enough to use his extensive cultural knowledge and the newly acquired information to build a strong theory of mind for other cultural backgrounds. Something not directly shown, but mentioned in the movie is the way he prepared the assassination of Wombosi, a political enemy of the USA. All of his abilities then made it possible for Bourne to sneak up on him on a highly-protected yacht and be in the position to execute him.
And if you still didn’t get hungry from all the awesomeness of this multilingual badass, check out the following video.