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We Are Living in the Coen Brothers’ Darkest Comedy

2008's "Burn After Reading" strikingly resembles the bumbling plot of Trump's Russia scandal, but also captures how amorality leads to treason.

Getty Images/Focus Features

OSBOURNE COX: The Russians?
HAL: Uh-huh.
COX: The Russians?
HAL: Uh-huh. Russian embassy, yeah.
COX: Are you sure?
HAL: Hey, the guy was not hard to follow. As you know.
COX: Why the fuck would they go to the Russians?! Why the fuck?

Burn After Reading (2008)

Imagine a group of dunderheaded Americans who think they would benefit from a covert alliance with the Russian government. They make overtures to that country’s ambassador, blithely ignorant that they’ll be monitored by U.S. intelligence. A series of cascading mistakes ultimately brings disaster crashing down on their heads.

That might sound like a summary of the latest news about the White House, but it is also the plot of Burn After Reading, the 2008 film that stands as singularly prophetic of the Trump era. The Coen Brothers’ black comedy echoes this unique period in history not only because of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russian operatives, but the wider culture of deceit that made Donald Trump’s rise possible. More than just a satire on espionage, the movie is a scathing critique of modern America as a superficial, post-political society where cheating of all sorts comes all too easily. Unlike movies such as Citizen Kane, Burn After Reading doesn’t offer any easy one-to-one character analogies to Trump and his cronies. Rather, it captures the amorality that leads people to become entangled in mercenary treason.

Burn After Reading is a divisive film. The New Yorker’s David Denby spoke for many when he complained that it suffered from “terminal misanthropy.” Yet it is precisely because the film takes such a dim view of humanity that it seems eerily true to life. It’s not just that the characters in the film are almost all amoral, but that they are so relentlessly stupid. These are not the super-heroic secret agents found in James Bond movies or the Mission Impossible franchise. They aren’t even the grubby but competent professional spooks of John Le Carré. Rather, the plot of the movie is driven by imbeciles who have only the most limited understanding of the world around them. As such, they call to mind figures like Donald Trump Jr. and the music promoter Robert Goldstone, who were witless enough to discuss over email the Russian government’s support of the Trump campaign:

GOLDSTONE: The Crown prosecutor of Russia met with his father Aras this morning and in their meeting offered to provide the Trump campaign with some official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father. This is obviously very high level and sensitive information but is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.
TRUMP JR.: Seems we have some time and if it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer.

As Ross Douthat noted in his latest New York Times column, the Russia scandal is notable for the sheer idiocy of its key figures thus far. “The mix of inexperience, incaution and conspiratorial glee on display in the emails suggests that people in Trump’s immediate family—not just satellites like Roger Stone—would have been delighted to collude if the opportunity presented itself,” Douthat wrote. “Indeed, if the Russians didn’t approach the Trump circle about how to handle the D.N.C. email trove, it was probably because they recognized that anyone this naïve, giddy and ‘Burn After Reading’-level stupid would make a rather poor espionage partner.”

Burn After Reading was alert to how the end of the Cold War changed the dynamics of treason. “Government service is not the same as when you were in State,” the main character, former CIA analyst Osbourne Cox, tells his senile father. “Things are different now. I don’t know, maybe it’s the Cold War ending.” Cox, played with malevolent glee by John Malkovich, is a spy of the old school: a decrepit Princeton prig who worships George Kennan. It’s not only Cox’s alcoholism that causes him to be cashiered by the agency, but his antiquated establishment hauteur. He finds his nemeses in Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), two exceptionally dopey employees of a gym called Hardbodies who accidentally acquire a compact disc containing drafts of Cox’s barely coherent memoir. Thinking they’ve found something valuable—“secret spy shit”—the simpleminded duo tries to leverage the CD for cash, first from Cox and then from the Russian embassy. Their motives are petty: the aging but spunky Litzke wants money for plastic surgery, and her goofball buddy is all too eager to help. Dumbfounded when Litzke and Feldheimer present them with this unexpected but also worthless gift, the Russians determine that these would-be traitors are, as one embassy worker says, “not ideological.”

Litzke and Feldheimer’s adventures with the Russians is reminiscent of an early December meeting at Trump Tower attended by Michael Flynn, who would briefly serve as national security advisor, Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law, and Sergey Kislyak, the Russian ambassador. Kushner reportedly raised the possibility of setting up a secret communication channel at the Russian embassy to relay messages between the Trump transition team and the Kremlin. As The Washington Post reported, “Kislyak reportedly was taken aback by the suggestion of allowing an American to use Russian communications gear at its embassy or consulate—a proposal that would have carried security risks for Moscow as well as the Trump team.” Like his counterpart in the Coen Brothers movie, Kislyak was puzzled by these strange Yanks who were cluelessly messing around with spycraft.

The “non-ideological” world of Burn After Reading stands in contrast to other Coen Brothers movies, where Soviet Communism is often evoked as a polar opposite to American society, the anti-self by which the U.S. defines itself. The very first Coen Brothers film, Blood Simple (1984), opens with the narrator contrasting Texas with Russia. “And go ahead, complain, tell your problems to your neighbor, ask for help—watch him fly,” the narrator muses. “Now in Russia, they got it mapped out so that everyone pulls for everyone else—that’s the theory, anyway. But what I know about is Texas...” This sense of communism as a possible alternative, albeit an often suppressed or imperfect option, recurs in the Coens’ movies, notably in the Popular Front theatrical ambitions of Barton Fink and in the absurd Marxist reading group that doubles as a spy ring in Hail, Caesar! So it’s all the more striking that when the Coen Brothers took a stab at a spy thriller, they created one where political passions are non-existent.

In Burn After Reading, the spy farce becomes entangled in a parallel sex farce. Living as they do in a post-ideological world, the characters in the film, which includes many secondary figures, have as little personal loyalty as they do patriotism. They cruise internet dating services and hop from bed to bed, using spy-like deception to fool their mates and those they have affairs with. This connection between personal and patriotic betrayal resonates in the Trump era: It’s not surprising that the same crew that was so willing to make covert alliances with the Russians are also stabbing each other in the back with hostile leaks.

“You’re part of a league of morons,” Cox tells Ted, the manager of Hardbodies, near the end of the movie. “You see, you’re one of the morons I’ve been fighting my whole life.” Cox’s complaint is hilariously oblivious: He doesn’t see that he’s as moronic as those he’s fighting. The story culminates in squalid violence, and the unheroic Deep State is left to clean up—which is to say, cover up—the mess. A few hapless characters are dead, and Cox is in a coma, but Litzke gets her plastic surgery: The CIA pays for it, figuring it’s the best way to keep her quiet. This is a conclusion without justice, the CIA choosing order above all else. Cox’s former colleagues have been keeping track of the whole mess, and while they’re adept at making bodies disappear and paying off witnesses, they’re as puzzled by the unfolding folly as anybody. At the end of the film, CIA boss Gardner Chubb reviews the whole story with Palmer Smith, the agent handling the case:

Chubb: What do we learn, Palmer?
Palmer: I don’t know, sir.
Chubb: I don’t fucking know, either. I guess we learn not to do it again.
Palmer: Yes, sir.
Chubb: I’m fucked if I know what we did.
Palmer: Yes, sir, it’s hard to say.
Chubb: Jesus fucking Christ.

The Coen Brothers have often been accused of being nihilists, unfairly so. Even in their darkest movies, cruelty and evil don’t reign supreme; decency and kindness do, as embodied by Marge Gunderson (McDormand), the homey, no-nonsense police chief in Fargo. But Burn After Reading does come closer to nihilism than any other Coen film. While there is some pathos in figures like Cox and Litzke, they don’t evoke any fellow-feeling. The universe of the film is hilarious but bleak: a world without patriotism, without friendship, without any genuine love, where deception and spying are commonplace because no one can be trusted. It’s a world rife with misunderstanding, where mixed signals lead to folly and crime. Even those who seem to have some skill mastering this world, the faceless and passionless agents of the Deep State, only have partial comprehension of what is happening.

The most disturbing thing about Burn After Reading, though, is how it resembles every day in Trump’s Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred. Yet for all its dark prescience, Burn After Reading almost feels too optimistic. Though there is tragedy and death throughout the film, the Deep State is able to restore some semblance of normality to the world. In Washington, even as the Trump administration’s incompetence gets pushback from the intelligence community, there’s no real hope for going back to the way things were. Trump’s antics are relentlessly normalized by Republicans in Congress and the conservative media, whose latest defense is that incompetent collusion isn’t a crime. That’s a story perhaps too dark even for the Coen Brothers—where stupidity leads to attempted treason, but such behavior is waved away as everyday politics.