Burn After Reading, in addition to perhaps being one of the larger practical jokes played on a multiplex, and also being one of the largest home movies ever made (because it's basically just a bunch of kids screwing around on the weekend with their new very expensive camcorder), is also the first big Information Age satire. Much like The Big Lebowski in 1998, on a first viewing it may feel slight, aimless, and frivolous in spite of its humorous pleasures, particularly following the heaviness of their respective predecessors (Fargo and No Country for Old Men). But, again like Lebowski, it acquires richness on repeated viewings. The main culprit, I believe, for why these two pictures are so much better the second time around (and however more times after that) has to do with how intriguing – yet ultimately aimless – the plots are. The endgame for both pictures is nothing – or, simply "Fuck it, dude – let's go bowling," or even more simply "What the fuck?" – and once the viewer realizes that there's no place to go, he can more easily sit back and enjoy this absurdity using whatever interpretive means he passively projects. And in analyzing Burn After Reading we are presented a humorous yarn about our global Information era, where human beings are mere "bodies," digital information being the truly important element of value. Biological, spatial, and real-time relationships are secondary to the presence of this data, identified by Brad Pitt’s “go-to” asexual gym employee Chad Feldhammer as “the raw shit,” contained on a computer disc and not existing in a real physical environment.
This pointless maze the Coens have crafted is put into motion by the first sound effect, snagged from probably the most important "Information Age" movie, being that it anticipates the era: Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey from 1968. The sound heard over the Focus Features logo is that of the Jupiter spacecraft manned by Dave Bowman, at the mercy of HAL's mercilessly insane technological hold, just before he must use the emergency entrance from the podcraft. What is suggested by the sound effect of the mechanical bubbling is the dissonance between the human and the robotic, the domineering cold mechanical instruction over human conversation or discussion. HAL will not open those pod bay doors, and there will be no discussion. There is only instruction and response. HAL is a precedent for Tilda Swinton's "cold bitch" in Burn After Reading, Katie Cox. The human is gone, its death relayed dryly and without drama: Life Functions Terminated.
The lack of conversation sets the tone for scenes that follow: the unfortunate demise of Oswald Cox (John Malkovich), a Level 3 CIA analyst, wearing a conspicuous bowtie, who is told that he's being relieved from something referred to as the "Balkan" case. "That's it? No discussion, just 'you're out’!?" he angrily says to his superior, Palmer. "We're having the discussion right now," replies Palmer, amiably. What follows is Cox's flurry of 'fucks' brought on by his frustration, as well as an explanation: "You have a drinking problem." "Fuck you, you're a Mormon." Instead of taking a demotion, Cox quits in protest, rationalizing his decision by believing that the CIA is a tired bureaucratic machine. He will write his memoirs (a word spoken quite memorably by Malkovich), and speaks into his tape recorder, "We were young and committed, and there was nothing we could not do…" before he stops and, like so many other struggling writers, decides to watch TV, have a drink, and gawk out the window.
The idealism of Cox's opening line to his memoirs could also be said about his marriage, or the false idealism of any relationship where conversation has become dead, instead existing as a practical arrangement with no communication (or plagued by constant miscommunication). The first time we see Katie (Tilda Swinton), Cox's "cold bitch" doctor wife, she is surprised to see her husband home so early. We hear her say, "Do you think I'm cheating?" He asks her to repeat herself. "Did you get the cheeses?" we now hear her say. Of course, she is cheating on him...just as she is concerned about the cheeses, for a party they are throwing that night (and which her lover will attend). He wants to tell her that he quit his job, but she insists that he "get the cheeses" – discussion is eradicated, and all communication is miscommunication. The relationship aspect of the marriage is a dead thing, like a character on a computer screen open to instant deletion. The humanistic motivations for Oswald's resignation are of little matter to Katie. The moment her financial benefits are terminated in relation to him, there is no use for a marriage. He is not a person to her, but rather, as her divorce lawyer puts it, simply "This kind of man," who is "practiced in deceit." The one thing he can provide for Katie is a copy of his financial records, which she will acquire deceptively.
Cox is stranded in the post-human wilderness, starved for stimulation and warmth. He descends into alcohol’s arms and the rather hilarious comfort of his fraternal university days, singing "Three Cheers for Old Nassau" with his Princeton cronies. On a boat, he nakedly explains his hopes for a better future to his father, apparently also a former CIA man. The haunting element of this scene is that the father is basically a corpse, an infirmed wheelchair-bound catatonic staring into space. He is a cold and pasty body, a metaphor for wasted flesh in a cybersoaked virtualscape. With Carter Burwell's muted and melancholy score, at first we may question why Cox is talking to a corpse. He might as well be speaking to himself, and perhaps he is.
The other element to Burn After Reading's crowded introduction is Mrs. Cox's affair with Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a talky federal marshal who prides himself on having never discharged his weapon, though he adds the training is so engrained that he would reflexively un-holster and shoot if the circumstances demanded it. We are met with an interesting Cartesian dichotomy in the picture: Cox, who delights in speaking condescendingly to Harry, in addition to constantly calling others "morons," is all cerebral mind (making bald Malkovich a more than appropriate casting choice), while libidinous Harry, who is exercising, building, fucking, and prone to suffer from particular acidic food reactions - while never really thinking - is all physicality. His body cannot be contained. Though happily married (so he thinks) to Sandra, a writer of children's picture books, he cruises the internet for dates, seeking to dominate new spaces. Exterior space, after all, is what seems to capture Harry's attention. While Cox sinks deeper into his solipsistic memories and a vortex of self absorption, Harry enthusiastically knocks his feet on a new floor, inquiring about the wood. This makes Harry's affair interesting: a consummate bullshitter and exhibitive of the grosser aspects of humaneness, he is fucking Katie, a straight-talking robot with no dimension beyond the "raw shit." In bed with Katie, Harry tip-toes with her about his unhappiness: "You're young and you think something lasts forever. Then you get older, and you think no more time for dishonesty…subterfuge…" After which she breaks in, "I'm thinking of divorcing Ozzie." She says, during this exchange of direct communication, that she's clear, and that this thing with Harry isn't just "fun and games" (much like Maude Lebowski). When in fact, for Harry, that's probably all it is. It's his release, feeding into his body’s addiction to stimulation. We have to wonder with Harry how enjoyable a life with Katie would be. Not at all, probably. Harry represents the delight in human/animal processes, or the sheer confusing experience of it (lack of exercise contributes to his depression). And while Cox represents the airy mind-over-matter intellect, Katie, a doctor, is the reductive Darwinian thing-in-itself, whether that be bodily function or computer.
Act Two begins with saggy, loose skin being pinched in close up, a doctor's commentary being followed by a woman’s questions and rebuttals. The focus of the camera's clinical examination is Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand), a middle-aged woman planning on having a four-part reinventive surgery: liposuction, rhinoplasty, facial tuck, and breast augmentation. This is part of the "self reinvention" she sees as being necessary for a number of reasons. The professional reason is that she, as an employee of a gym appropriately called Hard Bodies, is involved with "public interface." The second reason is the basic human one: Linda is a single working woman undergoing the natural effects of time. She's starved for affection and a sense of the normative happy life of companionship. The story of Linda Litzke presents an interesting take in a Coen brothers film, and again it’s interesting to take into account the 2001 sound effects heard at the opening: our own age is in many ways the fulfillment of science fiction, a brave new world where technological advances enable us to be reinvented wholly. Her doctor tells her that her inner thighs do not require liposuction because "that area will usually respond to exercise." And yet, despite the fact that Linda works at Hard Bodies, she's not interested in hearing this. She wants to be reinvented now, where the process of biological change is not brought about by analog work, but rather "digitally," through an operation that she can simply purchase, or rather, as her ensuing conflict informs us, her insurance can purchase.
Linda Litzke is a kind of 21st century representative working single woman, much more accurate than the figures idolized in Sex and the City. Women, after all, have the burden of having to remain "beautiful" in order to be suitable for mating. Haunted by the prospects of loneliness, in addition to "rotting eggs," she is less of a genuine person open to conversation than stating what she wants. Her boss, Ted (the wonderful Richard Jenkins), actually is in love with Linda for who she is, and tries to dissuade her from getting surgery. Mentioning that he used to be a Greek Orthodox priest, and hesitant as to why he decided to leave that vocation, he tells her, "It's a journey." But an age of instant gratification and access of convenient ends do not encourage the “journey.” There is simply "public interface" and therefore, the downloading of a new program, a new “Me.” She joins an online dating service, BewithmeDC.com, in hopes of meeting a man, and as she looks at prospective men with her asexual coworker, Chad Feldheimer, they come across as shoppers rather than people interested in the acquisition of "true love." Chad comments on one man, Alan Rosater, "Hmmm…Brioni suit," which is a sign of some kind of wealth. Chad can also pinpoint how Alan has reinvented himself, catching the hairplugs. The ensuing date between Linda and Alan is demonstrative of the virtual post-human: there is no conversation. They meet, they take in a movie, they fuck, and that's that. After which, going through Alan's wallet, Linda discovers that Alan is probably married – continuing the endless strains of infidelity in Burn After Reading. In a world where all communication is robotic, such as Linda speaking with frustration to an automated speaker while trying to contact a health insurance representative, there is no sympathy-laden symbolic exchange. The online dating service is only the bare bones simulation of a relationship, full of lies but void of bullshit’s poetry, of which any memorable relationship is constructed.
However, Linda's meal ticket arrives in the form of a compact disc ("found on the floor," as a Hispanic janitor repeatedly informs his superiors, in a trademark Coen dialogue). What's on the disc? We're not told anything specifically: numbers and dates appearing to be affiliated with the CIA. The Hard Bodies employees, Ted, Chad, and Linda, surmise that it's top secret high level sensitive material, Chad putting it bluntly: "That's the shit, man! The raw intelligence!" It is, in effect, the most real and detrimental thing, contained within digital bits of information. Chad, through his DC ties, is able to trace the disc's information to our hero, Oswald Cox. The plan between Chad and Linda is set: blackmail Cox, in hopes of getting money for the “raw shit,” a payment that Linda will use to complete her reinvention.
This whole mess is much ado about nothing, which is part of its cruel trickery on the audience. The aesthetic mirrors in tempo and technique any number of Bruckheimer thrillers, though ultimately without motivation, adding to its sense of ridiculousness or, if we are too much like the characters here, our own sense of inflated importance: "There has to be something going on here!" when in fact, there isn't. The disc is really just the little material Cox has drafted for his incomplete memoirs, along with his banking information. In this sense, Burn After Reading is an appropriate follow up to No Country for Old Men, where the characters are befuddled by how fate, or death (personified in Anton Chigurh) finds them, and the movie can only end as suddenly as it does. Burn After Reading has characters of the opposite color, who are certain of their important part to play in an international drama of espionage, when in fact they are little more than hard bodies.
"Have you ever heard of the power of positive thinking?" Linda asks Ted, who is trying to dissuade her from getting a "phony baloney Hollywood body." The people obsessed with "positive thinking," reading books like Don't Sweat the Small Stuff, The Secret, and any number of self motivational spiritual books, are usually the most emotionally troubled people. Linda claims to be this positive thinker, making her dreams come true by avoiding negativity and acting assertively, but she, unlike Ted, has no sense of the actual inner journey required for a kind of spiritual transformation (Tony Robbins and The Secret are not Soren Kierkegaard). Linda shares her "don't sweat the small stuff – and it's all small stuff!" philosophy with Harry, the second man she meets on the internet. Harry is a good communicator (unlike Alan Rosater), because he is an impeccable bullshitter, dishonest to himself much as Linda is to herself. He says, "Full transparency is my MO," though it's only partial. He admits that he's married, but lies to Linda, saying that he and his wife are separated. Harry wants to exist in real space ("Are these White Plain Pine floors?"), but isn't introspective enough to exist with himself – unless, of course, he is exercising.
And what about Chad Feldheimmer? A lot of critics have complained about Pitt's over-the-top mugging. Feldheimmer feels, on the first viewing, a superfluous character, giving empty comic relief with his constant physicality – which proposes (if doesn't exactly beg) the question, "Why the physicality?" "Empty headed" Chad is much like an asexual, unmarried Harry, fucking and lying replaced with biking, dancing, and being ceaselessly plugged to his iPod and hydration: he's an extreme parody of Harry, thinking less (no one receives more "moron" insults from Oswald Cox), and moving his body more. He's averse to wearing a suit (something that covers up his body), and starts crying when he's punched in the nose by Cox – an assault on his beautiful face. Chad has absolutely nothing to gain from working with Linda on her fraud scheme (he doesn't seem to want anything). He is simply, all in all, a body with an "empty head" (or a "good Samaritan," as he repeatedly says to Cox), a metaphor that becomes literal with his rather hilarious demise, brought on by Harry's "mechanical reflexes,” a bullet making him empty headed.
The raw shit of Cox’s digital information is taken to the Russian embassy, where Linda believes she can sell it, as long as the negotiations do not delay her from a date with Harry. The head intelligence officer refers to the system as a body filled with organs, the disc comprising more "organs of information," which prompts Linda to question, "Organs?" That is to say, the real body of flesh and blood, of geography and landscape, are now in the hyperreal bodies in the digital ether, outside of physical space, in a nowhere zone of processed binary units. If the characters in Burn After Reading are then shallow, it is more than appropriate.
Harry, meanwhile, accidentally shoots Chad in the face, someone he believes is a CIA "spook" being that the labels on his suit jacket have been torn off, and he possesses no identification in his empty wallet. He is simply a body. If the thought of killing a man were not enough to rouse Harry's conscience (and, flawed as he is, he seems a rarity in the film, being that he does have a conscience), he is struck by the realization that Sandra is cheating on him and eager to serve him divorce papers (this, moments after he calls her on the phone, imploring "Baby needs you!"). The paranoia of Burn After Reading is a parody of Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and other espionage classics. Yes, it goes without saying that you should trust no one, and "they" truly may be watching you. But in the current social climate, where human beings are less organic and cerebral and more mechanically driven by the pursuit of pleasure and convenience, it is our closest links that are futile and illusory. Some viewers disliked Burn After Reading for a number of reasons, but one aspect that bothered them in particular was how the picture made infidelity a frivolous issue. The Coens would probably agree. In this brave new world, how can any union be meaningful? This is a recurring theme in their pictures (Blood Simple, Miller's Crossing, Barton Fink, Fargo, The Man Who Wasn't There, and Intolerable Cruelty all deal with duplicity in marriage), and critics that complain that the Coens don't invest enough humanity in their characters perhaps give human beings too much credit to begin with. As the representative for the law firm Tuchman Marsh (a name that also appears in Intolerable Cruelty and A Serious Man) says, "Grow up, man. It happens to everybody."
The finale jolts us into the fresh terrain of Langley, seeing Palmer, Cox's boss from the first scene, reporting to JK Simmons' CIA director, and then explaining the absolute clusterfuck of a film we've been watching. We learn that the actual CIA spooks on the scene have discarded Feldheimer's body ("burn the body, get rid of it," the CIA director says passively). But the governing apparatus still has no clue as to what is actually happening. The CIA director says, “No biggie. For now, keep an eye on things. Report back to me, I don’t know, when it makes sense.” The wonderful element about this scene is how it reflects the audience's own frustration with Burn After Reading: with all this stuff happening, when will it all mean anything? We learn that the government panopticon is indeed keeping an eye on everyone, but rather impersonally, shrugging its shoulders. Again, don't sweat the small stuff (and it's all small stuff!)
The most noble character in the film, Ted, is put in a position where he must prove his love to Linda by sneaking into Cox's house (where Chad was killed), so that he can get more information for the Russians and find out where Chad is. Ted has to stop thinking and be a "can-do" person like Chad. But fate works against him, as when he sneaks into the Cox apartment, Oswald, drunk, depressed, and irked that his savings account has been depleted by his ex-wife (or by the Russians, who now have access to his accounting information; we're never told for sure), arrives, gun in hand, eager for revenge. To him, Ted represents "all the morons." Oswald chases Ted into the street, in a scene that recalls the horrific moment in Fargo where Steven Buscemi is hacked to death by Peter Storemare. The scene cuts back to Langley just after Cox splits open Ted's head.
This wonderful scene functions as a full epilogue: Ted is dead, a CIA spook shot Cox (who is now brain-dead and on life support), Harry tried to flee to Venezuela (believing that Linda was a spook), and Linda will be paid off by the CIA to get her surgery. As far as the "body" goes, "That's gone, sir." The text in the title that needs to be burned is the human body, as human beings have now been reduced to texts that can be erased just as surely as burned books and computer files. Life functions (or Oswald’s brain functions), much like the screen tells us in 2001, have been terminated. "Jesus fucking Christ,” Simmons' CIA director says. “What did we learn, Palmer?” “I don’t know, sir.” “I don’t fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again.” “Yes, sir.” “I’ll be fucked if I know what we did.” “Yes, sir. It’s hard to say.” “Jesus fucking Christ.” Hard bodies and digital information, amounting to nothing.