Monday, August 6, 2007

Slouching Toward New York City to be Bourne

Note: It seems from surveying the Web that the first challenge in writing a review of the latest installment of the Jason Bourne spy-thriller film franchise, "The Bourne Ultimatum", is to come up with a headline that plays on the name of the title character. Most of the obvious ones have been taken. (For those interested "The Bourne Identity Theft" seems to be unclaimed.) My entry in the competition, which appears above, is not gratuitous - the film is, indeed, about a man, painfully but inexorably, making his way to the Big Apple to try to start his life over. Test marketing of my second title choice, "Three Years of the Condor", indicates that it relies too much on a familiarity with the oddly similar Robert Redford spy thriller of 30 years ago. So it goes.

When we last left Jason Bourne, played with precisely the right level of slow-burn intensity by now top-of-the-A-list actor Matt Damon, he was battling the powers that be - namely his former spy masters in the CIA - trying to stay alive long enough to determine his long-lost identity and, perhaps, to extract revenge from those who deprived him of it.

"When exactly," you might ask, "was that?" Could it have been at the end of "The Bourne Identity", the movie that kicked off the film adaptations of the Robert Ludlum novels? Yes, it could have been. Or was it somewhere during the second installment "The Bourne Supremacy"? That's a possibility, too. Well, it's hard to say just when we last left our out-in-the cold spy and, honestly, it doesn't matter all that much. You see, Jason Bourne inhabits a Nietzschean action-adventure world of eternal repetition, where, although being an Übermensch has its advantages, they don't include being able to advance the storyline very much.

Bourne is the latest rendition of a popular hero on an epic quest, a particularly existential one at that. "Who am I?" is the question that nags at him, amplified in "Ultimatum" by nasty flashbacks during which he is escorted, questioned and tortured by vaguely familiar people in an unidentified ghostly white building. (A plaque on one of the doors may have read "Richard B. Cheney Day Spa", but since these flashbacks occur in dreamland soft focus, it's hard to say for sure.) We and Bourne are subjected to these episodes of uninvited recovered memory a half-dozen times during the course of the movie, partly so that we can share his anguish at the intrusion of these post-traumatic recollections and partly so that we can, along with Bourne, come to identify each of the "vaguely familiar people" at appropriate turns of the plot, to the extent that there is one. Given the choice, I would have opted for the use of name tags to accomplish the same purpose.

These flashbacks are notable for another reason. That is that they leave Bourne momentarily incapacitated, such is the pain of his recalled agony and, apparently, such is the visceral dread of not knowing ones true identity. (Am I the only one who might find this kind of oblivion desirable?) His reaction may not seem out of the ordinary, but, be aware, this Jason Bourne is a man hardly phased by the detonation of a bomb a few feet away or by the multiple bone-crushing impacts of high-speed automobile collisions. In fact, the assassins - assets in spook speak - who are dispatched to kill him would have fared better if they would have traded in their sniper rifles, razors blades, and high explosives for a hand-held video player loaded with clips from one of Bourne's PTSD reruns. Thus it is, though, with eternal repetition: some people never learn.

With flashbacks to refresh our and Bourne's memories - not to mention two feature-length movies available on DVD on the shelf - we are sure of this much: Jason Bourne is an exquisitely trained contract-killer, the product of some super-secret, black-ops contract-killer factory set up - and shortly thereafter shut down - in the not too distant past by highly-placed individuals in the CIA who would just as soon not be associated with it anymore. (How reviled was this program? Apparently enough so that even the then White House Counselor, Alberto Gonzales, was reluctant to issue a memorandum authorizing its continued operation. It was that scary.) Needless to say the fathers of said program would like to see it dead and buried, along with Jason Bourne, who is both a durable and an enduring reminder of their youthful extralegal excesses, not to mention a potential obstacle to their hoped-for advancement up the civil service ladder and golden-years retirement plans.

Bourne, though, is a man on a singular mission, the restitution of his former identity. He has no secondary goals, no ideological or political allegiance, and, in spite of his wits, no possibility of finding a safe haven in all the world, a point made brutally clear in the second film. Bourne will either succeed or he will die. Ironically his erstwhile masters fail to recognize the magnitude of the force that impels Bourne toward his reckoning with them, and, what is more, they fail - time after time - to appreciate how marvelously they have succeeded in transforming him into the perfect killing machine that they had originally sought to create. Eternal repetition, unfortunately for them, strikes again.

The first thing that rescues "Ultimatum" from B-movie oblivion is Damon's ability to bring to his Bourne a convincing mix of world-weariness, single-minded determination, and humanity. Without this balance the character could easily have morphed into a robot or a sociopath. Bourne is a hero, but a reluctant one, a trained killer for whom killing has become an unavoidable necessity. And while he barely breaks a sweat fending off the agents who are trying to eliminate him, an expression of true desperation flashes across his face when he sees that an ally, even one only briefly enlisted to assist him on his quest, has been placed in jeopardy. These are glimpses of the "inner" Bourne that Damon's performance reveals and they, more than any of the rather pedestrian facts about his previous life that we learn in the course of the film, suggest that this man's identity may indeed be worth reviving after all - especially given the cost that must be paid in human life, not to mention late-model luxury automobiles.

Although much of "Ultimatum" is little more than a framework in which the lead character ventures from place to place, battling the bad guys, it has the good sense not only to change, but even to celebrate, the scenery. Thus the film's second saving grace: it works well as a travelogue, a violent, kinetic one, but a travelogue, nevertheless. It sweeps us from the bustle of Waterloo Station in London, to the cluttered rooftops of Tangiers, landing finally on the gritty streets of Manhattan. The variety of these different settings not only enlivens the story, it also reinforces our understanding of Jason Bourne. Whatever his mysterious pedigree, he moves with ease between cultures, orients himself readily in any new city, and switches fluently to the local dialect, whatever that might be. (In this regard the movie would make for an impressive, if off-kilter, come-on for Berlitz or the Travel Channel - "visit exciting new places, meet the people there, speak their language and decimate the local constabulary.") Sadly, this film does nothing to explore the origins of this facet of the "Bourne identity" and leaves us longing to know more about the history of this man, an accomplishment of sorts, since a sequel is an inevitability, if not for dramatic reasons, then for purely financial ones.

The third redeeming feature of "Ultimatum" is its remarkable fight scenes. In recent years the innovation in action movies has been the introduction of "bullet time", a technique tuned to commercial perfection with "The Matrix" series. In bullet time we witness events from a vantage point of physical - and emotional - detachment. The action - and bullets and knives and fists of fury - slow to a veritable crawl and we are encouraged to savor the violence the way we might, say, a fine chianti. In "Ultimatum" director Paul Greengrass, turns the tables, dispensing with ironic distance and, instead, immerses us viscerally in physical combat. Shaky hand-held camera work and staccato cuts erode any fixed frame of reference we might have hung on to and we are pressed from the safe haven of the bullet-time voyeur into the middle of the hand-to-hand battle as it unfolds. The effect is not unlike the unraveling of a cubist painting of a fight, in which the components, having been first assembled - with false simultaneity - as a patchwork on a canvas, then throw off their temporal confinement in a fractured attempt to restore some sort of time-ordered sensibility - "The Bourne Guernica", if you will.

With regard to the talented supporting cast, I wish I could say that "Ultimatum" had put them to good use, but it hasn't. David Strathairn is saddled with the unbecoming role of CIA Deputy Director Noah Vosen, a Paul Wolfowitz want-to-be, if there ever was one. Vosen is smart enough to have weaseled his way to a position of considerable power, but not smart enough to know when he is in over his head. His armchair ruthlessness and clueless predictability hardly make him a worthy opponent; Bourne bats him around much as a cat would a hapless mouse. Strathairn deserves better.

Joan Allen, a favorite actress of mine, does a serviceable job as Pamela Landy, also a CIA higher-up, but one dedicated more to serving her country than her career. Her role demands that she demonstrate that - as Holly Hunter's character observed in "Broadcast News" - it is, in fact, awful to always be the smartest person in the room. To some extent Landy is Bourne's Doppelgänger, a noble soul battling the powers that be, trying to get to the bottom of a mystery in which she has been unwittingly ensnared. Of course she butts heads with Vosen, but these confrontations are mostly uninspired. Indeed, one of them is a set piece for a lecture by Vosen on how the "rules" have changed with the war on terror, meaning, apparently, that it's now OK for middle-level neocon functionaries to whack anyone they want to, anytime, anyplace. Although I don't doubt for a moment that this now may be the case, I would just as soon could have done without the the ham-handed lesson in twisted Bush-Cheney civics. The Bourne-Landy action-at-a-distance duet should have been the emotional center of "Ultimatum", but it receives neither the time on the screen nor the attention in the script that it deserves.

Fetching Julia Stiles reprises her role as Nicky Parsons, a young woman, who, from all appearances, had the decidedly bad luck of having signed on to the now ill-fated CIA build-the-perfect-contact-killer program back when she was scouting out a summer internship. Seeking redemption for these past sins while hoping not to be too readily recognized for her cameos in Bourne's fevered flashbacks, Nicky, too, flees out into the cold and joins Bourne as an ally and, briefly, but all too predictably, as a damsel in distress. The laws of eternal repetition say that these two must never consummate the unexpressed passion they feel for each other, but my bet is that the laws of the Hollywood box office will prevail in the next installment of the series and we will see Nicky doing more than tending to Bourne's bloody, battered hands.

It should not be surprising that the conclusion of "Ultimatum" is unsatisfying since the movie was never intended to move the Bourne narrative forward more than a bit. We are subjected to a tone-deaf "why can't we all just get along" coda, a plea to live and let live, one that didn't work so well for post-Rodney-King Los Angeles and seems bizarrely out of place when directed toward the brotherhood of factory-assembled perfect contract killers. More disappointing is the way, once again, consumer electronics are used to save the day. Without giving too much away, let's just call this particular application of office equipment a "deus ex fax machina". If I never again see a movie whose plot is rescued by the just-in-time use of a cell phone or a laptop computer, it will be too soon. That is my Bourne ultimatum.

Friday, August 3, 2007

Mixing Alphas and Oranges

This is my first post having to do with design. By design I mean very generally the way an artifact of any sort is thought about before it is built. It could be anything - an apartment building, a tourist map, a toaster oven, a website, a cellphone or, in this case, the set of announcements used on the subway system at the Atlanta airport.

You may have thought that the nerds responsible for creating computer programs had a monopoly on bad user interface design, but think again. A ride on the subway at Atlanta airport demonstrates convincingly that geeky thinking abounds, and that it is not restricted to hard-to-use PC applications.

"Wait a minute," you may object, "there's no user interface on the Atlanta airport subway." There is one, but it doesn't involve a mouse, or a keyboard, or an LCD monitor. The one I have in mind consists of the spoken messages that are broadcast as the train approaches and leaves each station. Their construction is a wonderful example of how technical knowledge in the wrong hands can be a confusing, if not a dangerous, thing.

To give you a sense of where I'm going with this, complete the following sentence,

A is for ...

If you responded with "apple", then, like the vast majority of English speakers, it is an association so natural, it seems reflexive. Then again, if you responded with "alpha", there may be a job waiting for you with the same outfit that scripted the airport subway announcements. For those guys concourses A, B, C, D, E, and the oddly named T, are best identified as alpha, bravo, charlie, david, echo, and tango, respectively. Why is this and why is it a bad idea?

The origin of this instance of interface design obtuseness is rooted in an inappropriate affinity for technology - or in this case, technologese. The alpha-bravo-charlie, triad is familiar to some of us. We hear it often these days in battle reports from Iraq which may refer to an alpha battalion or a bravo company, for example. The use of these alphabetic placeholders in the military derives from - and is best illustrated by - the "aviation alphabet" which defines word correspondences for each English letter. Apparently someone working on the announcement system had the bright idea that, since there was a need to identify letter-designated concourses and these concourse were, after all, part of an airport, then the ready-made aviation alphabet was a good fit. Indeed, it had been around for for decades. Why reinvent the wheel?

Well, the fact of the matter is that the aviation alphabet came into being to meet a specialized need, and that was the need to transmit letters clearly and unambiguously over what were often noisy and only intermittently reliable radio channels. Associating letters of the alphabet with words made it more likely that they would be heard over the crackles and pops of radio static. Choosing these words carefully made it less likely that one letter would be confused with one another. The advantages of these so-called "phonetic" alphabets should come as no surprise, since each of us, every now and then, has to struggle transcribing a confirmation code - usually a mix of numbers and letters - as it is spoken to us over the phone by a hotel reservation agent, for example. To do this we often resort to our own improvised phonetic alphabets, typically consisting of commonly occurring first names or other simple words.

So aviation alphabets come in handy when there is a need to transmit arbitrary letters reliably, either individually or as part of a mixed sequence of letters and numbers, over a noisy communication channel. Not exactly the requirements that emerge when facing the challenge of announcing the single-letter airline concourses encountered - always in a predetermined order - on the Atlanta airport subway. But there is another feature of aviation alphabets that makes their application to the airport subway especially misguided. That is that, in order to be at all effective, the people who employ these letter substitutions - both those speaking and those spoken to - are presumed to have studied them well in advance. In fact international standards have evolved to define the exact letter-word correspondences and to detail their precise pronunciation so that users can become proficient.

Now the likelihood that a given passenger riding the airport subway in Atlanta is familiar with the aviation alphabet in its full-blown glory is slight, but that hardly matters since mapping alpha to A and bravo to B and the like is hardly a challenge for an experienced English speaker. The problem is, of course, that we are talking about Atlanta Airport - a.k.a. Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport - and, consequently, many of the 80 million of so passengers who ride the airport subway every year are not only not native English speakers, they may in fact have only a cursory knowledge of the English language. Of course, if they know no English at all, there is little the aviation alphabet or any other could do to assist them. But, to the extent that they know a little English, the following alternative associations would probably sound much more familiar to them

A as in Apple,
B as in Baby,
C as in Cat,
D as in Dog,
E as in Elephant,
and T as in Television

(These are my own untested suggestions. I will leave it to the reader to provide his or her preferred substitutions.)

Now the point of this discussion is not to revise the script of the Atlanta airport subway announcements, although I would be pleased to see that happen, but to provide an example of how clumsy design ideas arise and how they can be avoided. To bring the matter home, consider the story of the letter D in the original version of the airport subway script.

Two years ago, as I recall, shortly after the aviation alphabet system was put in place, a subway rider outbound from airport concourse C would have heard the following announcement coming from the loudspeaker, "the next stop is concourse D ... D as in delta." The selection of this particular substitution, delta for D, in complete conformance with the NATO phonetic alphabet I might add, was no doubt a disaster. As anyone familiar with Atlanta airport knows, it is a hub for Delta Airlines, which uses, I would guess, about half of the gates there scattered among almost all of the concourses. An unfortunate traveler, unaware of Delta's dominance in the Atlanta market and desperately trying to make his or her way to a connecting Delta flight, would hear the magic word "delta" as the subway pulled into concourse D and would exit the train to march down the corridor only to arrive at what would likely turn out to be an incorrect departure gate. I'm not sure how long it took the airport authorities to notice this problem and replace "delta" with "david" in the concourse D airport subway script, but I suspect it required numerous complaints from angry misdirected airline passengers.

The misapplication of the aviation alphabet to this situation and the truly ill-advised use of the word "delta" to designate a concourse at Atlanta airport illustrate a not uncommon design failure: that is a failure of imagination. By imagination in this context I don't mean the kind of visionary genius that is the engine of true innovation. I mean more prosaically the activity of imagining how a product - in this case a subway announcement system - will be used in practice. This kind of imagination requires that the designer or designers place themselves in the position of the variety prospective users of their creation and mentally step through numerous scenarios that these users may encounter.

This was the kind of imagination missing from the process that led to the selection of the aviation alphabet for concourse identification in the airport subway. My guess is that the people who formulated the scripts didn't think much about them, certainly not about the context in which they would be used, specifically the number of non-proficient English speakers who would rely on them for assistance. There was a readily available technical "solution", the aviation alphabet, which seemed superficially appropriate - after all, it was the aviation alphabet - in addition, it had the imprimatur of an international standards organization which made it an easy sell bureaucratically.

Now I'll be the first to admit that the use of the aviation alphabet as part of the scripts for the Atlanta airport subway is hardly a design catastrophe of the first - or second - order. But, as an example, it does capture quite compactly how apparently "safe" engineering choices can lead to flawed products, especially when the people responsible fail to perform the most critical part of the design process and that is to put themselves in the shoes of their potential users.

Mike-Alpha-Romeo-Charlie, signing out.