Revisiting the Coens’ ‘Burn After Reading’

This almost seems timely in light of the breaking Russian spy story, but recently I rewatched Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, hoping that I would find that it had risen in stature, Big Lebowski-like, with the passing of time. But it was still the same half-baked, intermittently amusing and corrosively cynical movie it had been when I saw it before; repeat viewing doesn’t fill in the many blanks or reveal any ingenious connections as can be found in Lebowski, which also seemed a complete mess to me when I first saw it but on second viewing a few years later, removed from the halo of expectations generated by Fargo (an inferior movie, it turns out), seemed like an entirely different film. There will be spoilers, probably, in what follows, though Burn After Reading seems designed to mock the very idea of worrying about having the plot spoiled.

It seems like the film is meant to be a comment on the Iraq war run-up and the closed loops of national-security intelligence bureaucracy that spawn institutional corruption, self-satisfaction, and paradoxical ignorance. It dramatizes certain aspects of the Dunning-Kruger effect (explored by Errol Morris in this series of essays for the NYT), which describes the phenomenon of being too stupid to know you are stupid. The satiric portrayal of the CIA in the movie takes to heart not only Donald Rumsfeld’s famous concern with “unknown unknowns” but also Daniel Ellsburg’s point about secrecy, which is that in intelligence communities, access trumps accuracy and breeds contempt for the opinions of anyone without privileged access. In this 2006 interview Ellsburg elaborated the idea:

Top secret is almost like toilet paper in the Pentagon. I literally just did not have time in my 12-hour days to read very much that was less than top secret. I was reading, reading, reading, and it was all top secret. That means if you live on that stuff, you really look down on the New York Times readers, along with the rest of the country. If you look at the New York Times, you look at it very rarely for information, just to see what the rubes and the yokels are thinking about and what they think is going on and what they think the policy is, which has very little to do with what’s going on to an insider.

Imagine losing that access and just having to rely on the New York Times again, knowing for the rest of your life that you’re just reading fantasies basically, something that isn’t really related to what the insider knows. It’s a very great loss.

The film’s title, Burn After Reading, seems meant to capture this idea, as does the over-the-top arrogance of John Malkovich’s character and the flustered cynicism of the CIA chief played by J.K. Simmons. Of course, the film turns the notion inside out, as no one in the intelligence community can figure out what’s going on in the caper the characters played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand initiate (it seems telling that their names in the film don’t really stick), or what it means. Simmons’s character is only concerned about controlling access to whatever it is, even if it turns out meaningless. The access to the information has become the meaning for the intelligence community, for all intents and purposes.

That theme of the film comes together only once Simmons’s character appears a little more than midway through. Before then, we watch a slate of unpleasant, one-dimensional characters played with surprising and frustrating hamminess by actors capable of much better. (Tilda Swinton in particular is forced to harp on one shrill note.) We are never meant to sympathize with anyone, and we aren’t given much reason to care what happens to the characters — an attitude borne out by Simmons’s final assessment (he basically says the whole thing was meaningless and wishes various characters dead or in Venezuela). It’s as though the film wants us to be as exasperated as he is — as if we are supposed to finish watching and wish to forget about the characters and the plot as soon as possible.

The film’s tone is also muddled, with the Coens pursuing seemingly incompatible ideas. Part of what’s going on is a parody of the devices of paranoid espionage movies like Enemy of the State: thundering, pulse-racing drums on the soundtrack, surveillance-camera angles, mouse-eye shots of gray-suited men pacing down echoey corridors. But that mode doesn’t at all coalesce with the satire of can-do optimism and workout culture embodied by McDormand and Pitt. Those people don’t fit in a spy movie, and it’s not amusing that they are in one — just confusing and difficult to accept. In the allegory the film vaguely develops, those characters reflect the eagerness of Bush administration officials to “make their own reality” in Iraq and believe the intelligence that they’ve acquired, which they don’t understand, means what will benefit them personally. Instead of remaking reality through foreign policy, McDormand’s ardent desire is to get cosmetic surgeries to reshape her body. This wish apparently overrides any possible ethical concerns, voiced in the film by her lovestruck boss at the Hardbodies gym where she works with Pitt. Instead she is willing to steal, break into houses and sell state secrets to the enemy, all so that she can keep up appearances. She is the only character who gets what she wants in the end, though she has gotten two of her friends killed in the process.

The cult of exercise is an obvious motif in the film (George Clooney’s character likes to go for a run after his adulterous sex), seeming to betoken an insouciant narcissism, a smugness akin to the insulated intelligence community, presumably, but it’s not really clear. Exercise is socially useless effort, much like what the CIA is shown to accomplish in the movie’s storyline. But the gym scenes seem out of sync with the Georgetown settings of the rest of the film, whereas Lebowski‘s various locales always feel of a piece. The gym scenes feel contrived, and what’s gained thematically doesn’t make up for the strain they put on our willingness to suspend disbelief.

But Burn After Reading‘s biggest enigma is the Clooney character, around whom the plot pivots. He’s a can-do type as well, which I think we are supposed to infer from his implausibly building an elaborate sex toy on the cheap in his basement out of supplies from Home Depot — a device that automatically shafts whoever sits in it. (That non-hilarious sight gag is typical of the movie’s oddly poor comedic timing.) He is supposed to be a decommissioned former secret service agent, I think, but that seems to be a detail supplied only so that he can be carrying a gun. He seems like he should be the film’s hapless hero, but he’s a little off to the side and the audience isn’t given much of a sense of what is driving him. His character is used to suggest some sort of a metaphoric relation between espionage and marital strife — he mistakes the private eye hired by his wife’s divorce lawyers for a secret agent after killing the blundering Pitt by accident in his lover’s bedroom closet. His affair with Tilda Swinton, however, is never made psychologically comprehensible; his relationship with his wife, a children’s book author, is also ambiguous. With no way of gauging the stakes, the audience has little choice but to be indifferent to what happens to him. We don’t know what a positive outcome would be for him.

The Coens’ A Serious Man is a more successful attempt at putting across some of the same ideas that Burn After Reading gestures toward — exploring whether stories have inherent meanings, or whether these are imposed institutionally or individually after the fact — and is much funnier too. I keep wanting to see more in Burn After Reading though — no doubt I will give it another try in a few years and be disappointed all over again.