The Spy Who Wasn’t There
BURN AFTER READING — Joel and Ethan Coen, USA, 2008, 8
I wish it could mean more for me to say that I liked BURN AFTER READING more than I ever have liked a Coen brothers comedy (list below is updated to reflect), setting aside one or two tonal missteps mostly involving reaction shots from Clooney producing flashbacks from the detestable O BROTHER WHERE ART THOU. Though in a very different tonal vein, BURN tells the same story as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN — the chaos unleashed when ordinary people engage in criminal scheming in a bid for social mobility. In fact, going back to RAISING ARIZONA for the basic plot and to BLOOD SIMPLE for the irony of a crime that’s all one big misunderstanding, BURN is as “typical” as a Coens movie gets.
Richard Schickel once made the point about Preston Sturges’s political comedies (THE GREAT McGINTY and HAIL THE CONQUERING HERO) that they are so funny because Sturges — an American raised abroad and thus both an insider and an outsider at the same time — could see the American politician for what he timelessly is (a venal windbag) without a shred of conviction that he could be redeemed by being more liberal or more conservative. Ask yourself, what party did Everett Noble (the mayor in CONQUERING HERO) belong to? I don’t think I’d compare the Coen brothers to Sturges (they’re more the children of Billy Wilder), but they’ve certainly never given any sense in any of their previous films that there’s a partisan or ideological bone in either of their bodies.
The Coens could not be more explicit that they view politics sub specie aeternitatis in BURN AFTER READING, which both begins and ends with a God’s-eye POV, descending from above the earth into the CIA at the start, and then ascending back from the CIA at the end. It’s a conceit worthy of Kubrick — the whole tone of DR. STRANGELOVE and the final title card of BARRY LYNDON (another movie about social climbing). And just as that POV enabled STRANGELOVE to turn the death of 3 billion people into a cosmic joke, this is a very obviously “movie” movie (more on that later) where death is more serious to the characters but a joke for the viewers.
And these characters are jokes, and jokes of a particular kind peculiar to Washington, a point I haven’t seen emphasized apart from people searching for narrowly partisan subtexts. My friend and former colleague Stacy McCain (Go Dawgs!!!) was fond of the story he recounts most recently here about Washington social mobility being based on “the knives stuck in the backs of their former friends.” I wouldn’t myself put it that strongly, but it is unquestionably the case that Washington is full of unpleasantly outsized egos, something I consciously play against. Whenever I meet someone new and they ask me what I do at The Times and I give them my title, they often look impressed, a reaction I always try to play down (it truly is less important than it sounds). Washington is a city filled with people who think they should be important than they are, because go to Washington to “make a difference,” etc.
And to bring this back to BURN, much of the humor, especially the brilliant performance by Brad Pitt (it will be ignored by the Oscars because it’s a comic performance … grrrrr), is based on this gap between his self-perception and either what really is or the self-perception of others. The scene in the car with Malkovich is a side-splitter not only because Pitt is a doofus who doesn’t realize that all he has is a second-rater’s memoir (look at the still attached to this graf also — the suit and the bike helmet; the bloody nose and the reaction from Tyler frackin Durden). But also because Malkovich’s own ego requires him both to go along with that false premise and to act like a murdering badass himself.
But because BURN is set in Washington, people are inclined to see partisan politics in it. Michael Gerardi noted in some private correspondence (quoted with permission) that he was mystified by what the film was trying to say about politics.
The real problem the film is discussing is the total vacuousness of these people, their lives, and their relationships, the extent to which they are totally willing to betray one another to satisfy themselves (this could be a commentary about our politics, I suppose, but it just as strongly could be a commentary about our culture; whatever one wants to say about Bush 43’s administration, I think it is an odd approach to parody him with a high society comedy about the brahmin of Washington DC, which Bush most certainly isn’t).
There is one detail that Mike gets wrong, but it’s significant. BURN isn’t about the Washington brahmin, just about people who act as if they are. From Malkovich’s book to McDormand’s plastic surgery to Pitt’s CD to Marvel’s books to what-turns-out-to-be Swinton’s occupation (a genius late revelation — both myself and the person I saw the film with had gotten the sense her character was more than this), every character overestimates and overplays his own importance, just like in the real Washington.
Not only does BURN show outsized Washington egos getting in over their head based on a false self-conception, but it emphasizes that they are peculiarly “movie-ized” self-conceptions. In support of that last adjective, BURN more than once shows characters going to the movies on dates, and their worth is measured by what they respond to. And then look at the casting — the principal actors are all playing outsized screwball versions of their screen personae: Clooney the suave ladies man; McDormand the quirky hausfrau; Pitt the young stud; Swinton the cold bitch; Malkovich the overwound “it’s my head” scene; Jenkins the nebbish. Finally, the misunderstandings (Clooney fleeing at the end, McDormand going to the Russian embassy, “or the Chinese”) are what you get from characters who think they’re in a spy movie and acting like spy movie characters do. Because you never know when The Man might grab you off the streets.
This universal idiocy is why BURN is the ultimate demystification of the spy movie. The genre has depended on the omniscient The Man for at least the 50 years since the scene in NORTH BY NORTHWEST where Leo G. Carroll explains George Kaplan to a roomful of spooks. Always, the premise has been that somewhere there’s someone who knows everything. Even in THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM, where The Man is the baddie, he still provides the omniscient, omnipotent Center for the movie’s universe because he can see anywhere in the world and do anything. The Man is a secular god that we build in order to overthrow (secularism eating its own young as it were). The Coens blessedly are having none of that. The two “catch-up-the-plot” cutaways to CIA headquarters show us two characters whose only virtue (though it’s a considerable one in the context of this movie) is Socratic knowledge of their own ignorance, though being venal like everyone else, all they can do is rug-sweep: “well, get him on the plane to Venezuela” (and without a Hugo Chavez reference — proof of this film’s disinterest in the disputes of the day) and “pay for the damn plastic surgery — all $700 billion worth of it.” (Ooops … did I say there was no political subtext.)
BURN is a big-screen version of Seinfeld — the spy movie show about nothing, where the MacGuffin is not only finally irrelevant (as Hitchcock taught that it should be), but it’s basically made of nothing but misunderstandings by idiots (“there’s like secrets and numbers and shit”) and misinterpretations by others based on a guilty conscience. This surface nihilism frustrated Steve Greydanus, though it’s clear that he did get everything there is in the movie, he just didn’t put it together. Yes, people start dying (the movie’s first death is as jarring and unexpected as the shower scene in PSYCHO, from which the scene in question does borrow from some). And it’s over nothing. But that tells us that if human terms matter, and the film does leave that open, then even “nothing” has to matter since whatever people think becomes important on that very basis. And to express discomfort, as Steve does, over which characters are alive and dead at the end betrays a belief that virtue is rewarded that I think is false, simply, and the illusion to which the Cross is a grave scandal. To put it rather more crudely than the thought deserves, the more one believes NO COUNTRY and BURN are guilty of nihilism, the more intractable a problem Job and theodicy become.