The Medium and The Messenger

Redrum 237: You are the caretaker
October 16, 2012
EYEBLAZE #6 SANTA SANGRE
October 23, 2012
By Diarmuid Hester
Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) and Tony Gilroy’s The Bourne Legacy (2012) offer contrasting portraits of mankind’s relationship with modern technology but while one merely confirms known knowns, the other confronts known unknowns – questioning the nature of the human in a hypertechnologised era.

 

The Messenger follows Captain Tony Stone (an Oscar-nominated Woody Harrelson) and Staff Sergeant Will Montgomery (Ben Foster) in their roles as members of the US Army’s Casualty Notification service, charged with the grim task of informing fallen soldiers’ next of kin. Responsible for making contact with families and delivering the news unmediated and in person before the bereaved can be alerted by other means (text messages, phone calls and news reports are all potential threats) the protagonists’ missions and lives are out of step with a modern digital, computerised context. Montgomery, we’re told, doesn’t own a PC. They never watch the news. In a half-hearted concession to contemporary technology, beepers alert them to new fatalities and new missions. Their characters, furthermore, are distinctly premodern, erected upon mythological tropes: impartial messengers for the recently deceased, Montgomery and Stone are kinds of contemporary psychopomps or ushers of souls. The film’s title evokes the archetypal messenger Mercury (Roman god and spirit guide), while Sgt Montgomery’s progressive loss of sight in his left eye recalls the one-eyed Odin, father of Thor and psychopomp of Norse legend.
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The accumulation of these features set against a background of hostile hypermediation (theirs is a race against technological encroachment) might be considered Moverman’s filmic addendum to the high theory of Baudrillard who, in The Gulf War Did Not Take Place (1995), famously framed a preceding Iraq war as one mediated by televisual apparatuses to the point of utter abstraction. As the director admits, the film is deeply humanist and The Messenger’s suspension between a few intensely affecting encounters with grief-stricken next of kin focuses the film on a very human experience of loss (Steve Buscemi’s desperate and outraged father and Samantha Morton’s disturbingly courteous wife in particular make for remarkably poignant scenes). Here, Moverman seems to suggest, in these personal relationships, in the bonds which make us human, outside of the looping of video clips, the rolling 24 hour news ticker, the circuit of sensationalism and mawkish sentimentality, lest we forget, lies the material and human substrate which constitute our nightly news reports.[*]
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The most recent instalment of the Jason Bourne franchise, The Bourne Legacy, is similarly concerned with the status of the human in the midst of modern technological advancement – a drama which, like The Messenger, is played out in the context of US-led military actions. Though we initially find him alone, wandering the wilderness of Alaska naked, Aaron Cross (Jason Bourne’s new avatar played by Jeremy Renner) is quickly surrounded by the incursions of malevolent technology and swamped by what Eugene Thacker and Alexander Galloway call the protocological network, “a horizontal, distributed control apparatus that guides both the technical and political formation of computer networks” (The Exploit, 28). His enemies sit in bunkers surrounded by a panoply of TV screens, trading half-intelligible computer jargon as they attempt to get him back on the grid.  Unmanned drone planes fill the sky ready to obliterate the human renegade. Every video camera is a potential traitor, every barcode a liability.
Yet where Moverman’s film attempts to extract a human story from the contemporary computational quagmire, to distinguish mankind and its fragile emotions from its tech, The Bourne Legacy immerses its human in it, up to his genes. Cross’ attempts to ward off myriad technological forces, for example, are shown to be wholly inadequate as they have already infiltrated his defences on a cellular level: unbeknownst to him, experimental genome technology, with the aid of experimental virology, has altered the genetic composition of his body making him smarter, faster and healthier. Biotechnology (that is, the synchronisation of information technology and biological research) has induced in Cross a surreptitious segue (or crossing-over) from human to post-human.
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The plots of both films, then, are predicated upon the viewer’s allegiance and identification with their human protagonists yet it seems to me that The Bourne Legacy is the more interesting, even radical film. While The Messenger shores up the old-fashioned notion of a universal humanity, distinguished from technological advances, The Bourne Legacy gives us a character who is fast leaving the human race behind thanks to the (unwelcome) intrusion of contemporary biomedia. The Messenger gives us more of what we already know; Bourne, on the other hand, asks us the viewers a very pertinent question in a very modern context: who do I cheer for when I cheer for the human?
[*] We might suggest, however, that if this is the case then The Messenger may be as guilty of exploitation as those media outlets it may have in its sights, conducting grief and loss – the spoils of war – through a representational lens (albeit at one remove: these are, after all, fictional characters) in order to garner affective (and fiscal) recompense.