Rightwing Film Geek

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.

September 24, 2008 - Posted by | Coen brothers, Michael Gerardi, Stacy McCain, Steve Greydanus


  1. Even if Mr. Greydanus were right to assert that a movie should be discredited in part because it rewards evil and punishes virtue, I don’t think BURN can be accused of this. Without spoiling the ending, none of the characters we really care about in this movie are particularly happy when everything is all said and done—and that, I think, is precisely the point.

    Comment by G-Money | September 25, 2008 | Reply

  2. Nice analysis. In the theatre I was in, afterward, I overheard another moviegoer saying, “I don’t know if I loved it or hated it. It was like a Seinfeld episode.”

    Comment by Adam Villani | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  3. “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.”

    I like this. This is insightful and a good way to look at the film.

    A clarification. On “discomfort over which characters are alive and dead at the end”: This is not, for me, a matter of “virtue being rewarded,” as you suggest. Rather, it’s a matter of enjoying a fairly inconsequential comedy. I don’t at all object to movies in which the good suffer unjustly while the evil live happily ever after. I am all over Job and theodicy. I don’t think it makes for very good comedy.

    I wouldn’t call Burn After Reading “nihilistic.” I think “misanthropic” fits the bill nicely.

    Job is not misanthropic. For example, it has Job in it.

    No Country is a completely different issue. There the nihilism is explicit as one of several possible onscreen worldviews, and the movie’s structure offers some kind of of commentary on the relative merits of the different worldviews.

    Comment by SDG | September 26, 2008 | Reply

  4. I am an 18 year old newbie-adult, and a budding film geek i like to think. Just into my freshman year, On the average I watch 2 and a half movie per day. What I wanted to ask you was, Is it really necessary to dissect, analyse and review a film to completely enjoy it? Also, some of the classics and movies featuring in most “top” lists, I found to be frankly boring. Is one’s film-viewing history a cause for that, or are some of those movies just famous for coming out at the right historical moment?
    Again, if You do have the time, can you roughly suggest to me, a pattern and method of enriching my cinematic experience? Sometimes I am just overwhelmed by the number of references with other movies that you quote…perhaps this is just a passing welcome-to-adulthood pretension of mine, but I would seriously like to give it a try. I am in India, so I have an exposure to not just western cinema, but to Indian cinema too- a cinematic culture that at most times is foolish and exasperating, but in rare cases produces gems that have the power of creating a frenzy, and catching the fancy of this country’s teeming billion strong masses.

    Comment by preuxchevalier | October 2, 2008 | Reply

  5. Preuxchevalier

    Is it really necessary to dissect, analyse and review a film to completely enjoy it?

    Absolutely not. Indeed, I have pretty lowbrow sensibilities in a lot of ways that I don’t talk about much here (though I have confessed to loving Abba and something will come shortly).

    And I’m sorry I come across as intimidating (a language thing, maybe?). One of the most-important books in my life was Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind,” which I found intimidating in precisely the way you describe. Once I’d starting reading the philosophers he cites promiscuously, and I could wrap my mind around his prose, the book became as undeniable to me as a mathematical proof.

    Also, some of the classics and movies featuring in most “top” lists, I found to be frankly boring.

    Well, it makes a difference why you find them boring.

    Some of the greatest movies can come across as boring because they are remote from modern experience in terms of their soulcraft and assumptions. I have listened to audiences snicker through such period masterworks as Dreyer’s DAY OF WRATH and Rohmer’s THE MARQUISE OF O because it couldn’t connect with their characters’ worldviews.

    I’m wondering also whether a lot of Western movies seem strange to an Indian. I myself have a minor jones for Bollywood films, but the parallel or “art” cinema I tend to find rather obvious (see one of the capsules here).

    Others among the great films might seem boring because they were hugely influential in ways that have since been assimilated into the cinematic mainstream. For example, early Robert Altman is doing things with overlapping sound and with loose or interlocking story structure that everybody does now.

    These things will evaporate some with greater knowledge, experience and general education, which can only come with time. But the lack of an emotional connection is something that still will happen, and for that there is simply no cure.

    However in general, and I would say this to any young person still in the “exhausting the canon” phase, I would advise that if a film or a director is in the canon, they are in the canon for a reason. Indeed, one of the purposes of reading criticism is to straighten out a “huh?” reaction. Or more formally, learning what others see in a work that I do not.

    Now, I’m not saying you have to *like* what’s considered important. We all have our blindspots; I will go to my grave thinking Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson are overpraised bores. But I do think those men are owed my attention and efforts in a way a contemporary film-maker I don’t care for — oh, say, Wes Anderson — is not. If MOUCHETTE plays in a theater near me at a time I can see it, I will go and expect a bad film. And sometimes get surprised, as in WEEKEND or A MAN ESCAPED. A friend of mine, whom I won’t name because I don’t want to be seen as calling him out, recently saw Dreyer’s GERTRUD for the first time after I confidently predicted “bud, you will not like this film.” I predicted correctly as it turned out, but he still went to see it because it was Dreyer’s last work and lots of people whom he respects (hopefully myself included) think it’s great.

    Comment by vjmorton | October 16, 2008 | Reply

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