“Persons attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.” — Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
Rarely have the great writer’s words resonated so deeply than after viewing Joel and Ethan Coen’s Burn After Reading, a film so delightfully absurd and pointless that it damn near achieves grandeur in spite of itself. It’s the sort of film that presents a story with characters, scenes, and dialogue, but dissolves the moment you grant it even the slightest tick of interest. It dares you to care, then smacks you in the face for doing so. Even its hasty, dumbfounded conclusion, one in which the directors appear to have run out of film or lost the last few pages of the script, is inspired; a rushed, near-hostile act against audience expectation that all but declares war on the idea that movies should be taken seriously. Sure, it’s a parlor trick and too clever by half, but it works brilliantly this time around because the genre they’re sending up is so often self-important and ridiculous. Why do we sit in rapt attention at the various comings and goings of shadowy figures in rain-soaked locales, exchanging discs, reports, and microfilm as if the world depended on the outcome? Through long, heel-clicking walks down endless hallways, or in smoke-filled, labyrinthine, underground lairs, we are told, by no less an authority than the cinema, that government agencies — so wise, so worldly, so dangerous — spend their days and nights defending our way of life in any number of missions, meetings, and plots. The Coens, however, know better.
It’s no great leap of imagination to suggest that spies, operatives, and agents are simply bureaucrats with loftier ambitions and undue self-importance, but it takes a great deal of cheek to probe more deeply and find complete meaninglessness in their cloak and dagger childishness. Not only are they not saving the world for hearth and home, they don’t really have that much to do at all. It’s the mere appearance of heft that keeps the demons from the door. Bumbling g-men are a standard of the movies to be sure, but these are more than a few Frank Drebin clones accidentally setting the room on fire. The CIA of Burn After Reading is, frankly, an agency that has no real reason to exist. The die has been cast and the dollars spent, so it’s as if they have to justify their existence by erecting an edifice of competence and purpose. A terrorist or dire conspiracy may cross a desk now and again, but for the most part, these are bored suits playing Cowboys and Indians, all courtesy of the taxpayer. All the “hush-hush” communiqués and top secret files accomplish is an endless loop of detachment and delusion. The world isn’t without its dangers, but like any authoritarian regime, the CIA has to continually fashion an enemy to ensure its own survival. Peek behind the curtain and questions might turn into layoffs and budget cuts. Worse yet, the eye pops rapidly become eye rolls.
The best example of this ego-driven fraud is one Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a half-cocked agency figure who is asked to leave because of a drinking problem, when the truth is somewhere closer to overall irrelevance. Cox tries to save his dignity by quitting in disgust, but the damage has been done. “It’s not like it used to be,” he tells his mute, wheelchair-bound father, which is the Cold Warrior’s eternal lament. In those days of yore, the boundaries were clear, the missions steadfast, and the duties never-ending. There was enough work for all, and Cox was a man in the know. At least that’s how men like Cox viewed their time in the CIA, when in all likelihood, he pushed more papers during his service than buttons to end the lives of Commie traitors. Even now, at the end of his days, he attaches a great deal of importance to a compact disc he has been told contains vital information for his memoirs; tales told out of school, where people might get hurt. Not only would his book go unread, however, but it’s just as likely that its “revelations” would bore the few who manage to slog through the opening chapters. It is only Cox’s inflated vanity that keeps the project alive, and only to himself. More appallingly, the only ones even interested in stealing his vast reservoir of damning detail are a pair of nitwits seemingly unconnected to those he believes would actually want the information.
The nitwits in question, Linda (Frances McDormand) and Chad (Brad Pitt), are employees of Hardbodies Gym, the one place that best exploits their crushing lack of talent for anything other than wasting time. Linda is desperate to secure the necessary funds for a full-body makeover, while Chad chews gum, listens to his iPod, and obsessively hydrates like all obnoxious exercise fiends. More importantly, each is the product of a trite and mythologizing pop culture; one that reinforces the notion that paranoia doesn’t mean that they aren’t really after you. If you (or the brown guy cleaning the locker room) finds a mysterious disc, it can’t simply be someone’s personal information for a divorce case; it must contain the very secrets people have died to protect. What’s more, the sort of cryptic programs that “higher-ups” will pay top dollar to retrieve. Life is dreary and banal, but the movies let us ride the rollercoaster again and again. Most would toss the CD in the lost and found, but Chad senses something different. Finding a slew of data he doesn’t understand, he mistakes his confusion for significance, thereby evading the stupidity he has likely suspected defines him, but can’t face in the end. Dull routine must yield to earth-shattering events, lest the noose look that much more appealing. Of course, the disc is Hitchcock’s MacGuffin, but it also serves to lure the audience into familiar territory for their eventual comeuppance.
Linda, Chad, and Osborne place phone calls, meet in cars, and make much ado about nothing, all while the real business of the Agency takes place right before our eyes. No, plots are not thwarted, nor disasters averted, and when people spy from the sidelines, it is simply to serve divorce papers. Nearly everyone in the film is fucking around, and that may be the real story of intelligence work after all. It’s no accident that most of J. Edgar Hoover’s notorious files were sex secrets of friend and foe alike; useful tools to bribe, intimidate, and control, but nothing affecting national security. One would be naïve to think it’s changed all that much in the decades since. And yet, when we see strange cars drive by in the night, or shifty eyes looking above well-placed newspapers in the park, we assume we are standing between civilization and chaos. Far from wanting to destroy the country, however, they are content to destroy each other. Politics, then, is the not the art of government so much as staying ahead of the opposition. Hardly any D.C. agencies retain even a small degree of public respect, but the CIA is one of the few holdouts that still elicits a bit of awe and intrigue. Burn After Reading is here to say that even that is unwarranted. Even a key superior (J.K. Simmons), despite being routinely briefed on the Cox happenings, remains baffled and indifferent. It doesn’t mean a damn thing.
And that’s the key. Nothing of importance is on the disc and no one seems to care (not even the Russians), yet people die and lives are ruined. One particular death, whose surprise shouldn’t be spoiled, sets you back because it’s so completely meaningless, yet accomplishes much to throw the story into a tailspin. It doesn’t play by the rules, and we can’t decide how it fits into the puzzle. Only there’s no puzzle. No one gets theirs in the end, no one produces a file at the last minute to patch it all together, and no one connects a single dot, even for a hint of closure. Every gesture is an empty one, and the final credits wipe away the whole damn enterprise. Having come full circle by lifting back from where we first came in, we just might have witnessed the first motion picture to have as its title the very instructions for how it is to be regarded. “Forget what you’ve seen and heard here, for it never really existed at all.” It’s the epitome of meta-cinema, a pure exercise in how and why we watch and what the movies say when they fold upon themselves and stare unblinkingly at their own creation.