On two very complex and important 20th century American characters.
Writing about Matt Damon in yesterday’s post got me thinking about what I consider his two best film performances, both as reflections of his truly remarkable range and just as two impressively complex and rich character creations: Tom Ripley, the con artist protagonist of The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999); and Jason Bourne, the fugitive former-assassin protagonist of The Bourne Identity (2002), The Bourne Supremacy (2004), and The Bourne Ultimatum (2007). There’s plenty that could be said about each of these films, including the very impressive supporting casts (Jude Law has never been as good as he is in Ripley and the Bourne films almost made me like Julia Stiles, to cite two particularly impressive examples); similarly, each character was created by an interesting and underrated late 20th-century American novelist whose works still have a great deal to offer in their own right (Ripley appeared in four novels by Patricia Highsmith, whose ground-breaking psychological thrillers also included Strangers on a Train ; Bourne in three novels by Robert Ludlum, whose dense espionage thrillers without question inspired future bestsellers such as Tom Clancy). But for this blog, what’s most interesting about both Ripley and Bourne is how much they connect to and yet complicate and critique dominant American narratives.
Tom Ripley, at least in the film’s representation of him (while I’ve read both Highsmith and Ludlum, it was a while ago and for this post I’m going with my much clearer memories of the films; I’ll also be spoiling those films a good bit, so feel free to stop here if you haven’t seen ‘em!), has a great deal in common with one of the most iconic American fictional (in every sense) characters: Jay Gatsby. Like Gatsby, Ripley is born into poverty but will do whatever it takes to become wealthy, successful, and (perhaps most importantly) accepted by the most elite and upper-crust of his countrymen; also like Gatsby, Ripley is most talented precisely at performance, at inhabiting every aspect of the character and world he is continually creating. While both men’s stories end with a great deal of death and destruction, it’s certainly true that Ripley is a far more overt cause of that chaos than Gatsby; Ripley, in short, is willing to murder in order to keep up his performances, while Gatsby’s undeniable culpability lies more in his various forms of cheating (financial, adulterous) and his sins of omission. Yet you could make a convincing case that Gatsby is nearly as reprehensible as Ripley, and that the main difference lies in the fact that we see Gatsby through the eyes of Fitzgerald’s novelist-narrator Nick Carraway, a man who both falls under Gatsby’s charm and who (to an extent) shares Gatsby’s culpability in the novel’s final events; our vision of Ripley, unmediated by such a narrating voice, makes it easier to judge his most heinous actions for the atrocities that they really are. And as destructive as both men’s ambitions and desires ultimately are, it would also be important to keep in mind how fully they line up with some of America’s defining narratives, most especially the self-made man and the prominent place he occupies in the American Dream.
Jason Bourne’s American connections (again, in the film version of the character) are in many ways much more explicitly contemporary, more directly in conversation with national narratives and realities post-9/11. The series’ engagement with those contemporary and political issues has been present since the first film but was ramped up in each subsequent sequel; the villain played by the great David Strathairn in Ultimatum represents a particularly clear stand-in for American “war on terror” policies and practices and their logical yet terrifying endpoints. Moreover, both Bourne’s complicity in those extremes and horrors and his gradual but absolutely determined extrication of himself and his prior identity from them can be read across the three films as a powerful argument for how the nation as well can and must leave behind what we’ve become in the decade since 9/11. Yet on another level Bourne connects to a centuries-old and archetypal American hero, the kind of character described by literary critic R.W.B. Lewis as “the American Adam”: these Adamic heroes, who originated as many American literary images did with James Fenimore Cooper (and specifically with his recurring hero Natty Bumppo), seem to exist as innocent and largely self-made“new men,” outside of (or at least not ultimately bound by) the limits of history and society. Bourne is not the first character who can be said to reveal the fundamental flaws in and even impossibility of such an Adamic identity—Lewis rightly notes that Gatsby can be read in precisely that way—but he is a particularly compelling case: an Adamic hero who comes to realize that he has been instead an anti-hero, and must fight to escape and destroy that anti-heroic identity and the myths that come with it.
Both Ripley and the Bourne films are great entertainments on their own terms, but as with all of the best art, they also echo and engage with and amplify ongoing narratives and images, with our ideas about who we are and with what those stories often leave out or gloss over. And that’s a very impressive talent for sure. Next Americans abroad tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Responses or suggestions of works about Americans abroad?8/6 Memory Day nominees: A tie between two 20th century figures who took Americans to places they had never been before, Matthew Henson and Lucille Ball.
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