Rightwing Film Geek

The Spy Who Wasn’t There

burnmovie

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.

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September 24, 2008 Posted by | Coen brothers, Michael Gerardi, Stacy McCain, Steve Greydanus | 5 Comments

The dumbest guy in the room

GONZO (Alex Gibney, USA, 2008) — 6

Former work colleague Stacy and I went to see GONZO together last week, in part so he could review it for the American Spectator. I have long known that Stacy loves Hunter S. Thompson and had written several times for the newspaper on him, so I figured he’d get a kick about at least seeing GONZO.

But it made for an odd experience. Usually, when it comes to movies, I’m the Smartest Guy in the Room. Here, not so. Stacy knows far more about Thompson and his career than I do (most of what I know is filtered through the Doonesbury character Uncle Duke) and so he was uniquely equipped to write the kind of kick-ass review of GONZO that I never could.

The nub of Stacy’s complaint was that the film was too heavily focused on Thompson’s political involvement in “the Sixties,”¹ and thus skrimped heavily on large chunks of material, both from earlier and later.

Gibney … seems determined to force the square peg of Thompson idiosyncrasies into the round hole of contemporary liberal passions. It’s an awkward fit. At times, Gonzo seems more like a celebration of George McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign than of Thompson’s journalism career. …

These political choices might be more easily forgiven if they did not result in Gonzo giving short shrift to other aspects of Thompson’s career.

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July 15, 2008 Posted by | Alex Gibney, Documentary, Stacy McCain | Leave a comment