Burn After Reading begins with a contrast in scales. The initial view assumes a technological omnipotence, as a google-earthy perspective from space zooms in quickly, taking you from continent to coast to city to corridor — at last, to a pair of feet, making their way swiftly between offices in “CIA Headquarters, Langley, Virginia.” The camera is precise and gymnastic, even a little awesome. This is what they must do at the CIA, after all, maintain surveillance and derive data in ways beyond the capacity of the mere human.
But then the view tips up from these speeding feet to reveal the man and his situation. CIA analyst Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) has been summoned by his superior, called in to receive bad news. He’s been shifted to State, essentially fired. “That’s it, no discussion?” Ozzie harrumphs, “Just, you’re out?” His boss gazes at him coolly from behind his desk. “You have a drinking problem,” he assesses. Ozzie erupts. “This is a crucifixion,” he wails, arms out as the camera peeps from below. “This is political.” And with that, he is, indeed, out. And with that the scene cuts to his home, glass on the counter, ice cubes and booze close-up.
Deft and darkly witty, the sequence sets most all the terms for Burn After Reading. Whatever his superiors think of Ozzie, whatever he knows about himself or them, whatever may be true, the story has already lurched into a gear that has little to do with him. More a catalyst than a player, Ozzie embodies the problem of the CIA, of the “intelligence community,” which is that it reacts to data — collected and without context — then fashions a story about said data to comport with the reaction (the phrase “slam dunk” comes to mind here).
Even as Ozzie imagines he has a handle on his sudden new circumstances (he quits rather than take the new position at State, of course), he does not. He will, he tells his terminally furious wife Katie (Tilda Swinton), take advantage of his freedom, he’ll write a memoir. He has information, he imagines, that will sell a book (or grant him vengeance). He convinces himself that he’s left the agency as a matter of principal, telling his father, “Government service is not the same as when you were in State. With the cold war ending, it seems like it’s all bureaucracy and no mission.” Looming large in the frame, corpselike, throughout his son’s self-contemplation, the father is in the next shot revealed to be in a wheelchair, not just cold and unfeeling, but literally unable to respond or offer counsel. And so Ozzie’s worldview is reinforced by the echo chamber of his own mind, just as it had been for years in the agency.
The father-son moment passes quickly, less an insight than an observation. Like other such gags in Joel and Ethan Coen’s movie, it’s both subtle and audacious, evocative and efficient. It also reveals a thematic connection to No Country for Old Men, as both movies ponder the effects of time passing, communities stagnating, and fears cementing. Revealing Ozzie’s isolation and underlining that his outrage is informed by his acculturation within “government service,” the scene also indicates why he’s not ever going to know what’s going on with his terminally furious wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton).
Her story provides a link to the film’s other dimension, sort of a parallel universe, which also has to do with data misconstrued. Ozzie has no notion that she’s having an affair with a self-absorbed federal marshall named Harry (George Clooney), married to a popular children’s book writer, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel). (Harry and Katie’s sexual assignations, like his with other women, repeatedly end the same way: she puts on her earrings as he stands in the bathroom doorway, buttoning his shirt: “I think I can still get in a run,” he says, self-absorption his own form of -understanding). Katie’s divorce lawyer advises her to get hold of her husband’s “financial before he’s forwarded,” in order to do legal battle (“This is a man practiced at being deceptive,” he notes), his portly form and elegant suit intimating that he knows exactly how to manipulate such data.
Except in this case, Ozzie’s records end up in the wrong hands. Specifically, the hands of Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and her best friend Chad (Brad Pitt). Employees at Hardbodies Fitness Center, they stumble onto a disc filled with Ozzie’s memoir notes, left behind in the ladies’ locker room. They mistake the information for crucial “CIA shit,” and decide to blackmail Ozzie for cash, Linda feeling especially desperate to have plastic surgery (“I’ve gone just about as far as I can with this body,” she worries, lamenting her “gut that swings back and forth in front of me like a shopping cart with a bent wheel”). Stymied by the gym’s health plan, Linda can’t believe her good luck when the disc turns up. Though it’s Chad’s idea to call Ozzie at home one night (“I thought you might be worried about the security of your shit”), it’s Linda who comes up with an alternative when he’s uncooperative. She and Chad can sell the disk to “the Russians,” she guesses, like the cold war never ended. (
Linda’s operating on the basis of movies she’s seen, trying to bully low-level Russian officials, instructing Chad to remove all identificatory labels from his clothing. Her shenanigans grant Burn a whole other sort of energy. Unlike the government workers, the folks at the gym can see their limits, the compromises that define their experiences. Harry and Chad are flip sides of the same problem, given to prototypical displays of masculinity: Harry boasts he’s never had to fire his gun in decades of service, but does like to wear it on his dates; Chad is a cartoon character, with streaked hair and an affection for his gym shorts, outsized and small at the same time. It’s a matter of goofy contrivance that Linda ends up in bed with Harry; both regularly seek sex partners on the internet and neither knows how else they’re connected, via Ozzie’s info or, more insidiously, the fact that they’re both being surveilled by the CIA, who get wind of the “Russians” plot.
The CIA’s decision to monitor and then control the action forms a kind of lunatic chorus, rendered in conversations between the director (J.K. Simmons) and an agent (David Rasche). As they parse the escalating violence and read any possible motivations, they come up with flat-footed imputations, a process premised on chronic distrust, wild speculation, and utter lack of self-awareness. In other words: your tax dollars at work.