Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney) is building something in his basement in the surrounding suburbs of Washington D.C. Pfarrer goes jogging and notices a car is following him. The Coen Brothers shoot Clooney in a series of close ups where he’s always looking over his shoulder or glancing vehicles in his peripheral vision. The score’s intensity increases with the rising tension like the great political thrillers: Three Days of the Condor and All the President’s Men. Finally, Pfarrer reveals to the woman he’s having an affair with, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), what’s hiding in the basement. What dastardly thing has he created to unleash on the American capital? It’s a DIY sex machine. Pfarrer is proud because it only cost him $100 to make; he laments it would have been cheaper if dildos weren’t so expensive. The Coen Brothers take the aesthetic of political thrillers to subvert expectations in Burn After Reading, an absurd anti-spy drama where nothing is a stake and those who work in “intelligence” lack wisdom.
Faced with a demotion at work, Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) angrily quits his job as a CIA analyst and decides to write a memoir. When his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) finds out, she sees it as an opportunity to file for divorce and continue her affair with Pfarrer, a deputy U.S. Marshal. She copies her husband’s financial records and other files, including the draft memoir, and gives them to her lawyer. The lawyer's assistant copies the files onto a CD, which she accidentally leaves on the locker room floor of Hardbodies, a local gym, where it’s found by a personal trainer (Brad Pitt). The employees of Hardbodies come up with a plan to blackmail Cox for money in return for the disc.
As Burn After Reading spirals out of control, CIA operatives attempt to minimise the damage, which causes no real threat to national security. A senior official at the CIA (J. K. Simmons) gets briefed on the situation and says: “Report back to me when, uh, I don't know, when it makes sense.” The Coen Brothers state the situation is pointless, chaotic and absurd. The CIA’s involvement gives the Coens the opportunity to satirise how the intelligence agency is using their resources to babysit a group of misfits to protect their own interests. The characters in positions of power struggle to define what their objective is in the battle between personal trainers and a rogue analyst. Cox mentions when he gets fired: “Now it’s all bureaucracy and no mission”. Even one of the personal trainers at the gym (Richard Jenkins), upon learning about the leaked documents, knows the discovery is bad when he says: “I want this out of Hardbodies, we’re running a gym here!”
"It's a film that’s ahead of its time in analysing the role intelligence agencies play (using taxpayer money) to snoop around in our private lives in search of something to do in the name of patriotism."
Burn After Reading, released in 2008, pre-dates the global surveillance leaks of 2013 when ex-National Security Agency (NSA) contractor, Edward Snowden, unloaded a cache of documents detailing the surveillance tactics of the NSA and their global partners. It’s a film that’s a tad ahead of its time in analysing the role intelligence agencies play (using taxpayer money) to snoop around in our private lives in search of something to do in the name of patriotism. In fact, it’s one of the Coen Brothers’ films that politely slipped by before the storm of Snowden. It received modest reviews with a 78 per cent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes and made over $150 million at the box office, but it never reached the level of adoration most Coen Brothers’ films get. As a measure, The Big Lebowski has reached the cultural peak of having its own annual festival. Burn After Reading was released the year after No Country for Old Men (a 4-time Academy award winner) so the Coens’ productivity hadn’t allowed time for us to recover from the impact of their violent neo-western. It’s time to nudge Burn After Reading into the upper tier of the Coens’ filmography.
The Coen Brothers take elements of modern surveillance to extremes in Burn After Reading and finesse the story to add their screwball comedy sensibility to a story that begins and ends with the CIA. Beware the bumbling bureaucrats.
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Burn After Reading airs Friday 31 March, 8:35pm on SBS. (No catch-up available.)