Michael’s Movie Mentions: Exploring Tension-Building in “The Bourne Ultimatum”

“The Bourne Ultimatum” is a perfect film for analyzing and applying to writing, because it has many traits that are unique to this film series, one of the reasons it is widely known and well regarded as an action film. The director, Paul Greengrass, skillfully uses camera cuts and omniscient narrator voice to build tension throughout the movie. We will be primarily exploring the opening sequence to show just how these cinematic tools are used. I will also be applying this to writing as well, suggesting how writers can use these techniques in their writing to build tension.

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The opening sequence of “The Bourne Ultimatum,” before the movie title, is the perfect example of the iconic Bourne-style of filming, and how this builds tension in the movie. The camera cuts and positioning plunge the audience into the thick of action, as Bourne tries to out-maneuver the police. Wide angles are stunningly rare throughout the entire sequence; instead, action is largely portrayed by hand-held close-ups that closely follow behind Bourne, and point-of-view shots convey what Bourne sees when he turns around occasionally to check for police pursuit.

These point-of-view shots also act as a premonition for Bourne’s next move: as he stops for a moment, and spies a drugstore sign, the angle cuts from a close-up of his face, to his point-of-view: a camera angle revealing the drugstore signage. Now, when the camera cuts to Bourne entering through a doorway, we know where he is, because of this foreshadowing point-of-view of the drugstore. Bourne slows down, and comes to a halt in front of the sink, trying desperately to rinse the bloodstains off his hands. A dutch angle and close-up on his face further the intense inner chaos that Bourne feels in his mind. Cuts are still no more than two seconds long.

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Dutch angle

The opening sequence has thus successfully built tension, and set the stage for a blood-pumping thriller. Fast cuts in film are translatable to short sentences in writing. Authors use short, staccato sentences to set a fast pace, building action, very much like the camera-work in the Bourne movie. Dutch angles (in which the camera is set at an angle) are more visually-centric, but meanings could be stretched to apply to writing. I won’t go there in this post, but will point out that POV shots (frames that show the character’s perspective) are highly applicable to writing as they show the audience what the character sees. Think of all the times in a work of literature where the author describes what the character in the book is seeing – in both movies and books, this technique is used to get inside the character’s head, to feel what the character feels. This is essential in building tension, but can be used for many purposes besides tension-building, as it is a building-block for character development.

 

The overarching aspect of this tension-building that Greengrass uses is that of the narrator voice. The narrator voice dictates what information the audience knows. In the opening sequence, for example, the narrator is mostly first-person: the audience only knows as much as Bourne knows, feels the confusion that he feels, and sees the flashbacks that he sees. This adds emotional energy to the film. However, after this sequence, we are immersed in a world of third-person narration, which is also called the “omniscient narrator,” because this narrator voice transports viewers to places and reveals information to us that the main character, Bourne, doesn’t know about. The camera hones in on the CIA building where they are working to track a certain reporter down, showing what they are saying and doing. The camera then follows the reporter, who is oblivious to the fact that he is being tracked down. This interplay between third-person and first-person narration was made famous by Hitchcock, and is a powerful way of developing tension. This is a technique prevalent in the Bourne trilogy to build tension and suspense.

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What storytelling similarities are there between movies and books as it relates to narrator voice? In Bourne, narrator’s voice is the point of view. (Remember POV angles from the first paragraph? They tie in with narrator voice, too). In writing, narrator’s voice is also point of view. Think of Lord of the Rings. The narrator’s voice was third person, the point of view of the narrator. It wasn’t exactly omniscient narrator, but it was certainly third-person on a very basic level. Now thinking of the Hunger Games. First person. (Also distractingly present tense – but we won’t go there). Everything we read in the Hunger Games is from the main character’s perspective – because it is first person. In short, the camera can tell a story with a narrator’s voice just as well as a writer can in a piece of literature.

In conclusion, “The Bourne Ultimatum” is a good example of how the proficient director Paul Greengrass blends the elements camera angles with the narrator’s voice to effectively build tension and suspense throughout the movie, as witnessed specifically in the very first opening sequence. Again, this is no accident, as Greengrass is using the opening sequence to draw audiences in and ensnare them in a narrator’s headlock. Additionally, I examined how all this applies to writing, implying that writers can use these techniques in the written word to build tension. I did a more general comparison of movies and books in my post Storytelling Similarities in Movies and Writing – be sure to check that one out too.

As always, let me know if you have any comments or questions about my post – I’d love to hear from you!

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