By Guest Contributor Bryan Ziadie
I’ve heard a few friends’ opinions so far about The Bourne Legacy, the latest installment in the Bourne film franchise. The last set of sequences in the film got particular attention. Those scenes take place in Manila. It seems to be the case here in the Philippines that people, at least those I know, managed to stay immersed in the film up until that point. After this, a feeling of strange misrecognition of the landscape took over. This may be because what we’re shown through the camera work in the Manila scenes suggests a perception of the Philippines not unfamiliar to a militarized American pop-culture industry that’s easy to identify with it until you find that familiar spaces have become the focus of the camera’s lens.
One thing that I’ve noticed about First World action sequences that take place in Third World settings is the position of the camera. You often find it hovering above, looking down on metal, shanty-town rooftops as protagonists run across, leaping from one roof to the next either in pursuit of, or escape from, the enemy. A couple examples that come to mind can be found in Edward Norton’s Incredible Hulk and, in Inception, the scene that takes place in Mombasa. I can’t actually remember the movie Quantum of Solace very well, but the video game features a shanty-town, rooftop-hopping stage.
(Don’t watch the whole video, it’s actually pretty boring)
But, to say on track, here’s an illustrative scene from Bourne.
(Watch the whole video. It’s actually pretty badass.)
SPOILER ALERT FOR THE BOURNE LEGACY
But, as I left the theater after seeing Bourne, I found myself wondering where the badassedness came from. In thinking through this, it seems important to note that one reason the camera tends to look down on the Third World might be that in a lot of spaces, where movie crews film, there really just isn’t a whole lot of space. Homes are packed tightly together, and there’s often no distinction between the street and the sidewalk. And in an action sequence, the geography is an important part of the visual language. In fact, that may be a large part of the excitement in such sequences: the conquering of space or manipulating it in your favor and using it against the enemy.
For an action sequence, these impoverished spaces offer something uniquely thrilling: the chance to demonstrate macho-mastery by controlling a space that possesses something of a hazardous quality, making it seem less controllable. As Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) leaps across rooftops, there’s a risk that the structures might be unable to support his acrobatics and come crashing down, as they do in the Total Recall trailer, which, though it takes place in a futuristic setting, still draws upon the visual signs associated with contemporary slums. There are assorted slum signifiers throughout the trailer, but track to about 1:40 to see some rooftop-crashing:
Bringing our attention back to the film: Because the view, as well as physical mobility, from the street is restricted, the only way to visually portray this setting is by transcending it. From the standpoint of a blockbuster action-film director, the view from the street simply does not offer enough freedom. It produces the feeling of being closely connected to the environment, which is the opposite of what’s desired by the audience and the protagonist whose goal is movement without the restrictions imposed by concrete spaces, the necessity of living and working in a one place, or the US government against whom they battle to escape.
Marta, Rachel Weiz’s character in Bourne, starts the aforementioned Manila rooftop scene for us by reminding us what Cross has to lose. Even though he’s a genetically-manipulated military killing machine, Cross managed to find in Marta the potential for sweet, sweet lovin’. We have that in the back of our minds as we watch him race to escape the Filipino police, who are doing the dirty work of the US government, which is the real enemy.
The scene reproduces the formula of an earlier scene in the film in which the protagonist is being pursued by killer drones somewhere in the Alaskan wilderness. Cross, starting out as the hunted, takes on the role of the hunter, shooting down the drones (there might be room for a “you’ve just been double-Crossed” kind of pun here). The reversal of hunter and hunted is the exciting part. It’s a theme that’s actually there throughout the whole Bourne franchise and a staple of its genre.
The film can be pretty enjoyable from that level. But neither the Alaska or Manila scenes work–or at least, they become too ethically complicated for a Hollywood blockbuster–if those doing the pursuing have any degree of viewer sympathy. The narrative cannot give pursuers a humanizing portrayal. That we’re dealing with robots in Alaska and, in Manila, people who look different from and aren’t speaking the language of the intended (white American) audience is certainly convenient. In fact, it’s too convenient when you consider that the police in Manila would most likely be fluent in English, yet don’t appear to speak a word of it when chasing down The Bourne Legacy’s American hero.
The question emerges: What creates the cultural context in which it’s possible to experience excitement as the proper response to an action sequence constructed in this way? Why is it that the performance of heroic acrobatics on the rooftops of Manila slum homes, while being pursued by automatons, can be interpreted as an empowering narrative trope?
One thing to note is that Manila’s visual treatment is unmistakably militaristic. It makes sense that the Philippines would be the object of such a gaze. Having been a United States colony, the Philippines has been under constant military occupation since 1898. Though the Philippine Republic was granted formal independence in 1946, the US continued to use the region for military basing.
And though the Philippine Senate ordered the removal of US bases in 1991 (due to both social and environmental abuses), the US managed to secure an agreement with Philippine government elites to continue a more subtle military imprint through a legal framework that includes the Visiting Forces Agreement (VFA) and the Mutual Support and Logistics Agreement (MSLA). This, along with the changing nature of the US global military strategy, prompted an evolution of the basing structure. Bending the rules of Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) Programs, which are supposed to last no more than a year, the US has stationed troops in the Phillipines for periods of up to six years and used these troops for active combat (forbidden by the Philippine Constitution) to further the War on Terror, in which the Philippines, with the Islamic separatist movement in the South, is viewed as an important front.
The US also sees its Philippine bases as playing a crucial role in its Greater Asia foreign policy, allowing for immediate troop deployments should it be deemed necessary. The effective result is that, formerly restricted to specific basing locations, the US–with its new “low-impact” and mobile basing structure–can make use of practically all parts of the Philippine geography as “pivot-points” for military operations. Furthermore, troop footprint is in fact increasing as the US pulls out of the Middle East.
Strategic Gaze and Reasons
The reason that Cross and Marta go to the Philippines is to synthesize a super-soldier chemical compound pick-me-up that can only be produced in a US military lab in Manila. It’s believable that the US government would operate a covert lab in the Philippines because the plot draws on the actual history of US military presence in the region.
Downward camera angles also might seem militaristic because we experience similar aerial views on the news. We’re familiar with this gaze from images and video reportage on places and events of military interest, such as bombings that are reported in such a way as to instill confidence in the military’s ability to complete mission objectives. Aerial views allow us to see far and wide, giving us a sense of command as though we are military officers looking across the scope of the field of operations, deciding upon the appropriate strategic uses of its geographical features. But it’s not only in the context of formal war that we are asked to look from this militarized perspective. Often images of slums in news reports present these aerial views from helicopters, again to give us a sense of knowing something about an area, while allowing us to stay above and away from it.
Mimicking recent trends in the military basing practices, Cross is able to operate far and wide, without restriction, moving from the US to the Philippines and finding strategic pivot-points from which to protect his interests. He may fight the US government, but he does this by assuming its military operating model and gaze, which is biased, selecting the spaces of particular populations as appropriate battlegrounds, while understanding other spaces as off-limits.
I’ve noticed since I started writing this that there’s been a lot of discussion on the ‘net about the The Bourne Legacy’s portrayal of Manila, with a lot of people upset about the film’s focus on the “ugly” parts of the city. Some television news programs have already picked up on the debate and have kept this framing, posing it as a question of “Is Manila ugly?” The question that they should be asking is why did the director chose the more impoverished parts of Manila for the film’s action scenes?
One reason, in addition to the above-mentioned way that slum settings are used to make the action appear more daring, might be that something about using these militarized viewing perspectives on higher-income communities, with nicer houses, just seems, well, “unrealistic.” It’s a gaze that predominantly white American middle-class viewers are accustomed to turning on poor communities removed from them. Commercial spaces also seem out of the question. Can you imagine the same scenes being shot in the middle, for example, of SM Mega Mall while keeping the same climactic tone expected of the genre? (Though the layout of the mall would actually make for some pretty awesome stunts.)
The truth seems to be that spaces understood as connected to sources of capital investment (middle and upper class neighborhoods) and the spaces of investment themselves aren’t considered appropriate as locales for military operations, even if the operatives (like Aaron Cross) understand themselves as resisting the military apparatus. It also seems clear that “capital” shouldn’t be understood in just its financial form. Identities are also invested in and capitalized on. What would it take for Hollywood to withdraw its investment in a machismo-ized whiteness that empowers itself by dehumanizing the brown and the poor…and then trampling all over their homes?