Sunday, July 31, 2016

Jason Bourne:
Tech, Texting, and Sub-text

Jason Bourne, a thrill-a-minute for sure, may be the first action film I've seen where the ratio of smart-phone use to firepower is something like 15:1.  A third of the movie is about opening a file.  The overall scheme concerns the CIA's plan to use a popular social media company to monitor every American all the time, which may require assassination of the company's scrupulous CEO.  Bourne uses phones to hack into fire alarms and to listen in to the car ahead of his.   The film turns on the axis of Bourne's relationship with the CIA tech director who tries to "bring him in," developed through reading files, studying screen shots, and sending text messages. They don't say more than ten lines to each other face-to-face in the whole movie. 

Tech provides more than plot points.  Throughout the movie, our hero's every move is monitored by the CIA on screens that serve the double purpose of giving the audience aerial views and animated street maps to comprehend chaotic action during car chase scenes through a riot in Athens and on the wrong side of the Las Vegas strip. An earlier generation of writers might have used a narrator, a Greek chorus, or flashing text cards, e.g., "Meanwhile, back in Berlin...."

Tech is part of what makes Jason Bourne a thrill for the mind as much as for the gut.  Because we get four or five different layers of views of every event -- live action, video screen, graphic diagrams, human conversation, text messages -- our minds are moving along several different tracks at once.

The few laughs in the grim world of Bourne come when Tommy Lee Jones exploits the subtext of a situation.  He can play friendly, charming, forgiving, warm -- but we know what he knows from screens and digital voices, and we know what the sly dog is covering up. 

Before seeing Bourne, I already had some experience with stories shaped by technology.  My drama students collaborate on original plays, and they love their cell phones. For a comedy we called Txt, written when "texting" was new, we projected text messages on a screen above the stage, finding humor in cute text-speak interpretations of the action. In our murder mystery Under the Surface, we had to explain why the missing character did not text her friends.  This year, tech was central to our four-character comedy Crash, which concerned a hacker's plot to turn a game designer's apocalyptic scenario real.

We also learned what Bourne's creators know, how easy it is to turn tech into magic. In our play, we needed a laptop at a Krispy Kreme to shut down America's power grid.  We needed only to say that we hacked the system and implanted a "worm," and our magic was plausible.  In Jason Bourne, when the CIA chief says that they must delete the files on a laptop in Berlin, the tech director says, "We can do it -- because they have a phone."  My friend Suzanne and I both said, "Huh???"  But the story rolled over our doubts at break-neck speed.

Smart phones are going to be the best thing for drama since Euripides discovered the deus ex machina.

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