Bourne and read

The fiction: The Bourne Ultimatum, released 2007. Director: Paul Greengrass. Props (London second unit): Alex Boswell, Matthew Broderick*, John Moore

*Almost certainly not that one, but this is what the credits say.

The newspaper: The Guardian

It would be easy to scoff at the reputation of the Bourne franchise of spy thrillers. The cameras shake like they’re on board the Enterprise and it’s gritty in the sense that The Bourne Identity came out in the same year as Die Another Day. There are episodes of Barney that look gritty compared to Die Another Day’s invisible car, melting glacier kite-surfing and diamond-faced henchman. But there is a dedication to reality and verisimilitude in the Bourne films, and you only need to watch the start of the third film to see why.

In Turin, some informant is trying to blow the lid off a CIA programme that’s related to the one which turned Jason Bourne into an amnesiac assassin. While these days all he would have to do is throw it up onto WikiLeaks, The Bourne Ultimatum hails from the ancient days of 2007, so he turns to a journalist.

Specifically, Simon Ross, a hack from Britain’s left-leaning broadsheet The Guardian.

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Fondly known by some as The Grauniad because it used to frequently litter its pages with typographical errors, The Guardian is a spot-on choice for the filmmakers to use. For starters, just using a real paper shows a dedication to immersing these films in reality, shakey-cam and all. But they really couldn’t have picked a better paper.

Its left-wing inclinations position it as a better way to hammer the CIA and question spy authorities. Britain’s more right-wing press would have no problem doing the same if the CIA had performed some transgression against Britain, but as the informant’s aim to expose a more nebulous ‘threat’ – dodgy practices by the CIA, untargeted at any specific nation – The Guardian is a sound bet.

What’s particularly impressive is that as of filming, The Guardian had built up such a crusading, righteous fourth estate reputation when its biggest two coups on similar territory had yet to happen.

It eventually proved this form in November 2010, when WikiLeaks picked The Guardian (along with El País, Der Spiegel, Le Monde and The New York Times) to help give publicity to a quarter of a million messages from the US State Department that it was releasing to the public. Recognising this huge scoop, even though little of diplomatic cables had much to say about Britain, The Guardian dutifully reported.

More analogous to the Bourne story, though, is Edward Snowden. He also picked The Guardian, in 2013, to release government secrets. This time was a shady spying and surveillance system operated by the NSA and, again, The Guardian seized this story with some fervour and led the charge against the American government’s practices. In Citizenfour, the brilliant Snowden documentary that plays like a low-key spy thriller, the NSA whistleblower says he gave the information to a newspaper because he wanted responsible journalists to sift through the information and present it as well as it could be. He’s a clever man, but he knows his limitations, and sees journalists as having the relevant experience to be able to achieve what he wants: proper disclosure which will be noticed. Matt Damon has recently said that the fifth Bourne instalment is inspired by a post-Snowden world, bringing this full circle.

But just as Snowden went on to show, the government has ears everywhere.

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The CIA is on Simon Ross’s trail, and they can able to pull up their file on him. All the phone numbers in the CIA’s file fit with actual British telephone numbers, including a London area code for his work telephone, although they do all belong on a list of approved fake numbers – a specific range of telephone numbers that are never allocated to any provider so they can be used freely in TV and film. (As a side note, when TV’s spy thriller 24 used a telephone number, it used a genuine number that fans could ring and get through to the actual production team.)

The CIA also lists an address (119 Farringdon Road, London, EC1R 3ER), which genuinely was The Guardian’s headquarters at the time. (The paper has since moved to Kings Place, 90 York Way.)

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Elsewhere on the CIA’s database is that Simon Ross has monthly direct debit payments going towards environmental charities, which is a very Guardian thing to do, and is a “senior correspondant”.

As you can see, I have hit the “enhance” button on this one

Not only is correspondent spelled incorrectly in the CIA files, but it also doesn’t tally with what Jason Bourne reads when he picks up some of Ross’s reporting.

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The project of unveiling amnesiac assassins would be under the purview of both a senior or a security correspondent, and it’s always possible that Mr Ross is a senior security correspondent anyway. The style of Ross’s byline exactly mimics how The Guardian laid out its bylines in 2007. Most stories just carry a text byline, but bigger pieces – features and commentary – tend to include the writer’s picture, like so:

guardian opendoor
From Vexed Issue.

The detail is captured in other glimpses in the reporting, which use The Guardian’s own typeface, Guardian Egyptian. It was developed specifically by Christian Schwartz and Paul Barnes for The Guardian when the paper underwent its redesign into Berliner format in 2005. You can buy it yourself for $2,000, though given the film’s generous portrayal I suspect the paper let The Bourne Ultimatum use it for free.

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However, while The Bourne Ultimatum looks the part it seems as if Simon Ross has been sending off his copy to print without it passing under a sub-editor’s gaze. The Guardian’s style guide advocates using en-dashes in copy, rather than hyphens or the longer em-dash.

(For those unaware, you use this glyph (-) to join two words together. That’s the hyphen. For dashes, you can choose from the en-dash (–) or the em-dash (—). They are so called because they were, traditionally, the same length as a font’s letter N or M.)

But Simon Ross has put two hyphens next to each other as an ad-hoc en-dash. It’s not an uncommon practice in typing, but should definitely have been caught before printing. That incongruous space before the H of “his”, leading the intro, is also an offence to the eyes.

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“Firebombing” is correct as per the style guide (not a hyphen in sight), but the next paragraph hits another slip of the keyboard in referring to an intelligence service (the Bundesnachrichtendienst) as a plural: “Germany’s BND are…”. When treating the organisation as an entity in itself, it should be “Germany’s BND is…” as per the paper’s policy on collective nouns.

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Luckily, the editor – who does not look unlike Alan Rusbridger, The Guardian’s editor at the time – does not bring this up with Simon, who is soon on his way to Waterloo station to meet Jason Bourne.

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At Waterloo, we see some newspaper bills for the Evening Standard, the London-only daily newspaper, from the era before Evgeny Lebedev took it over and turned it into a freesheet. “Hit man’s plot to murder Ken” almost certainly refers to Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London at the time, and is a genuine story from November 1, 2006. So it’s just a stroke of luck for The Bourne Ultimatum that London’s paper has an appropriately grim bill that day.

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For further dating – though by now it’s unnecessary – Bourne also passes Official PlayStation2 Magazine, of which I used to be a devoted reader. OPS2, as it was known, has a big Scarface picture on the front cover, referencing the point-missing game released in October 2006. (You can buy that front page here.)

As Ross scuttles about Waterloo, with Jason Bourne giving him tips over the phone, the CIA has had enough. Perhaps noticing the proliferation of newspapers in the train station, and presciently aware of how easily The Guardian could expose its wrongdoings, the CIA’s operatives are ready to strike. Ross ends up next to one of Britain’s classic Health & Safety Executive posters, which outlines some details of safety in the workplace.

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A number one rule, perhaps, should be not to endanger one’s life by tackling a sprawling, shady organisation that might kill you just because it can. But if Simon Ross would actually countenance that thought, and scotch his investigation just for his own safety, then he wouldn’t be a very good journalist.

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He might still be alive, though.


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