Americans aren’t known for their linguistic prowess, and the newest Jason Bourne movie (creatively titled Jason Bourne) reinforces that stereotype. Gott im Himmel!
I saw the movie a few nights ago and walked out of the theater knowing that I had to write about it. I’m not a movie reviewer, but I do run a translation agency. I work with people every day who speak two, three, and four languages—fluently. And I love a good Jason Bourne movie.
Warning: plot points ahead.
As any 40-ish male who works at a desk but secretly yearns to be a fearless, multilingual superspy will tell you, the Bourne movies take viewers to cities around the globe, cities where English is not the lingua franca.
And one of the things that makes the first three installments of the franchise—The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy, and The Bourne Ultimatum—so great is that the writers, directors, and actors didn’t anglicize every single scene. (American-born director Doug Liman, who helmed the first Bourne film, even spoke French to the French crew while in Paris.)
The films aren’t afraid of subtitles, despite being Hollywood blockbusters starring American A-lister Matt Damon. Check out our hero manhandling a few Swiss police officers—after he rattles off a little conversational German easy-peasy!
Yep, that’s right. You just saw Matt Damon speaking German. And he speaks French in the movie, too! (But can he curse in Dutch?)
Now that’s a Hollywood film I can get behind.
English Only in the Latest Jason Bourne Movie
Jason Bourne is a superspy. He has a dozen passports, he speaks a half dozen languages, and he’s great in hand-to-hand combat.
But if you’re expecting to see lots of subtitles in the latest Jason Bourne movie, don’t get your hopes up.
So when I go to see a Jason Bourne movie, I expect—nay, I demand!—that Jason Bourne demonstrate his linguistic skills. It’s just one more indicator that the guy can handle himself in any situation.
But the film Jason Bourne never gives Damon the chance. In fact, we never see Bourne utter a single word in a foreign language. (Matt Damon, if you’re reading this, here are some French swear words to sprinkle into the next installment of the franchise…)
This is more than a little strange, given that the story opens in Greece and soon takes viewers to Rome and Berlin. (There’s a short scene in Iceland, but Bourne’s not there.)
This is the extent of foreign-language use in the film:
- Bettors screaming in Greek (or Albanian or other?) as a beefy boxer prepares to fight Bourne. The scene takes place on the border between Greece and Albania, where Damon’s character has been engaged in the rural Southern Europe equivalent of street fighting. We see a few subtitles of lines spoken by incidental characters, but Bourne stays silent.
- Some off-camera conversation in Icelandic. This aren’t even subtitles here; it’s just background noise.
Nothing. Rien. Nichts. Nada.
The fifth installment of a superspy thriller franchise that was always so good at using foreign languages to establish setting contains almost no foreign language.
Lots of Foreign Actors… Nothing But English
So Bourne speaks English exclusively. But what about the other characters in the film?
- The assassin in the film, played by French actor Vincent Cassel, is based in Rome. Does he speak—or even swear to himself—in French or Italian? No. (Fun fact: Besides speaking French and English, Cassel also speaks Russian and Brazilian Portuguese.)
- Playing opposite Matt Damon is Alicia Vikander, a Swedish-born actor whose English is impeccable but still unmistakably nonnative. Huh? A CIA higher-up who—from outward appearances, anyway—is foreign-born just doesn’t pass the smell test. (Vikander is a great actor, by the way. I just wish the writers—director Paul Greengrass and Christopher Rouse—would have made her a Swedish-speaking assassin instead.)
- Vinzenz Kiefer, a native German, plays an Edward Snowden–type character who meets Bourne in a run-down Berlin apartment. Any German spoken? Nein.
International espionage films should be just that: international. And the easiest way to go international is to feature multiple languages in the film. (And while I’m at it, you can’t end a Bourne film in Las Vegas. You just can’t do it!)
The old Jason Bourne could hold his own in several foreign languages. But the newest Jason Bourne movie is about as American as it gets.
On the Internet, like in film, English dominates. See how many people lack digital content in their native language.
For more on foreign languages and intelligence work, read about the benefits of learning a second language.
Are you a student interested in language? Then check out our page on majoring in linguistics and what careers you might qualify for.