clock menu more-arrow no yes

Some people can’t stand the Bourne franchise’s shaky-cam style. Here’s why it's important.

How director Paul Greengrass's signature rapid-fire visuals have changed moviemaking.

Matt Damon as Jason Bourne
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in the newest Bourne film.
Universal

It’s been nine years since amnesiac super-spy Jason Bourne last appeared on the big screen, but what’s immediately apparent in the latest outing, the eponymous Jason Bourne, is how little has changed.

The movie opens with a hazy flashback to a prior film, and once again we find Bourne himself living a loner’s life on the edge of the world — this time as a bare-knuckle brawler in the wilds of Greece, where he seems resigned to a life of empty, therapeutic violence.

As was the case in the last two films to star Bourne, this introduction is presented in a jittery frenzy, the "shaky cam" aesthetic for which the franchise has become both known and, in some cases, reviled. It’s the signature style of director Paul Greengrass, who helmed the new movie as well as The Bourne Supremacy (2004) and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007).

Greengrass has taken a lot of fire over the years for his hectic visual style, which blends documentary realism with a nervy, stream-of-consciousness aesthetic. When Ultimatum was released in 2007, RogerEbert.com reported receiving so many reader letters about the movie’s visuals that the site’s editors decided to compile some of them into an article. Nearly all of the letters presented — even from individuals who claimed to like the Bourne films — complained about Ultimatum’s "choppy, jumpy camera work," its "unwatchable" action scenes, and/or its reliance on incomprehensible staging and editing, which one reader dubbed a "gimmick."

"The entire movie shake-a-shakes with an incessant Queasy-Cam affectation," wrote another reader. Multiple letters suggested that the Ultimatum’s editing was bad enough to cause physical illness, while some complained of the style’s influence on other action filmmakers.

But in retrospect, Greengrass’s rapid-fire approach looks less like a gimmick and more like a carefully executed evolution of the language of cinema in an era of ever-present surveillance and information overload. He’s not the first director to shoot movies like this, but he’s among the best — and most relevant.

In nearly every scene, action or otherwise, Greengrass only keeps the most necessary footage

The Greengrass style is fast. It is choppy. Jittery. On edge. The camera bumps and swings, panning across the scene, then zooming in for close-ups, changing focus as it moves. Sometimes it follows the subject. Other times it seems to act as a pair of suspicious eyes.

It’s a style that recalls Steven Spielberg’s opening sequence for Saving Private Ryan and the intimate, intense work of director John Cassavetes. It draws from the traditions of documentary filmmaking and home movies — which is not surprising, given that Greengrass got his start as a filmmaker by shooting investigative documentaries for Granada Television.

On first encounter, it looks and feels chaotic, haphazard, random. The secret — and the reason it succeeds — is that it’s not random in the slightest.

In the Bourne films, Greengrass doesn’t just carelessly splice shots together to create the crude sensation of chaos. He selects his shots carefully. Just about every one conveys important information, even if only for a blink of a moment.

Watch closely, and you’ll see that Greengrass often cuts scenes down to their most essential components. Instead of showing a character get out of a car and walk up to the door of a building, he’ll show us a slamming car door, a character walking, and a close-up of a hand on a door knob. It takes less time and gets the same information across. In a sense, Greengrass is saying that you don’t need the whole, unedited picture to know what’s going on. He discards anything unnecessary.

What’s important to notice is that Greengrass doesn’t only do this during the action sequences. He films every scene like this — whether it involves car crashes and shootouts or something as simple as a person walking through a hotel lobby. The herky-jerky camera and editing he employs isn’t just a way of amping up the intensity of the action. It’s a statement about the movie’s main character, a way of capturing what it’s like to be Jason Bourne, to experience his reality.

The Jason Bourne films present the world as Bourne himself sees it. As viewers, we’re simply along for the ride.

When we first meet Jason Bourne in the new film, he’s in a truck, traveling along a country road. The camera bounces with the vehicle’s suspension, focused intently on Bourne’s eyes, cutting away only in brief glimpses to show us close-ups of the scene around him. The scene follows an opening flashback, presented as a washed-out memory.

Greengrass is telling us that this is not only Bourne’s story but his perspective. He’s putting the viewer inside Bourne’s head. That’s why it makes sense that so much of what you see seems to register at an almost subconscious level. This is how Bourne, the super spy with electric reflexes, sees and moves through the world — in barely comprehensible flashes and bursts.

This idea isn’t just built into the visuals; it’s built into the sound design as well. When Bourne arrives at his destination, a dusty illegal fighting ring in the middle of nowhere, Greengrass ratchets up the noise of the environment. The crowd grows louder, and scattered voices drift in and out, like overheard snippets of conversation.

The camera, meanwhile, continues to pan rapidly through the scene, cutting back and forth between the crowd and Bourne — his hands, his body, his watchful eyes. These are the shards of information he’s picking up from his surroundings; the movie is simply sharing them with us.

All of the Bourne films are, in some sense, about information gathering — the way Bourne surveys his environment as well as the way the spooks on his trail track his every move. The films brim with scenes of people using computers, searching databases, reading online news clips. Characters speak in terse thriller clichés: "Enhance." "I’m not on your side." "People have a right to know." They seem to relate to information better than they do to each other.

And Greengrass, in turn, always shows us how they know what they know: He gives us headlines, photos, key names and phrases from secret government reports, not all of which are fully or clearly explained. We, as viewers, are expected to piece it all together on the fly.

Greengrass’s shaky-cam style no longer feels revolutionary — in part because it better aligns with the pace of our world today

Indeed, this is how our brains actually process information about the world around us: in snippets and fragments that are sewn together into something more streamlined and coherent after the fact. It’s not all one smooth shot — it’s bits and pieces cobbled together in a way that hopefully makes sense. Greengrass’s style replicates our own sensory information gathering systems, as if unprocessed by thought.

This is Bourne’s personal outlook — fractured and dangerous, anxious and unstable, hyperaware but never quite sure of itself. But the style is meant to reflect the paranoia and information fragmentation of our own world as well.

Greengrass’s Bourne films are contemporary techno thrillers set against the backdrop of ever-expanding surveillance. The plot of the latest film is driven by a shady deal between a social media giant and US intelligence forces that clearly echoes the revelation that the National Security Agency had covertly worked with tech firms through a program called PRISM.

Both surveillance and social media involve gathering and rapidly processing massive amounts of information that is presently entirely in disconnected fragments, trying to piece together reality as if it were a puzzle. That’s the milieu the Bourne movies are set in, and from which they take their style.

And just as social media teaches us to consume and process information in disparate fragments, the Bourne films have taught us to watch movies in the same way. The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum were experiments, of a sort, designed to test the limits of how fast viewers could process visual information — and to train us to see even faster than before.

Jason Bourne is an underwhelming movie in many ways. Its characters aren't very sharply defined, and its underdeveloped script — the first in the franchise without a credit for Tony Gilroy — doesn’t have the pulse of previous entries. The film is an action delivery system and nothing more. But its breathless, extended action sequences, staged with limited use of computer-generated effects in real-world locations, still maintain a raw capacity to thrill. Greengrass holds the movie together on style alone.

Of course, those sequences no longer feel quite so unconventional as they once did Indeed, watching the early Bourne films today, part of what’s surprising is how easy they are to follow. Sure, they’re fast and even frantic at times. If you look away for a moment, you’re likely to get lost. These aren’t movies for distracted viewers — yet they anticipate the age of distracted viewing. The distraction is built right in.

But the quick cuts and camera jitters no longer seem quite so head-spinning or hard to follow. The style no longer feels like a gimmick or a stunt. It just feels like cinema at the speed of the world we already live in. The Bourne movies haven’t changed much — but reality has finally caught up.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for The Weeds

Get our essential policy newsletter delivered Fridays.