It usually takes a generation for a joke to stop making sense. Do the 20-somethings of today, for instance, understand why the 20-somethings of Reality Bites keep singing “Conjunction Junction,” the Schoolhouse Rock song that used to be an inescapable fixture of Saturday morning cartoons. (Do the 20-somethings of today even get the idea of Saturday morning cartoons?) Does anyone who didn’t spent way too many hours watching late-night TV in the late ’80s understand why Lloyd Dobler asks his nephew, “Can I borrow a copy of your Hey Soul classics?” in Say Anything…? References get dated without killing comedy, but what happens when one of the cornerstones of a film involves a joke that history, moving at lightning speed, has made look less absurd?
In Joel and Ethan Coen’s 2008 film Burn After Reading, Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) and Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt), a pair of employees at Washington D.C.’s Hardbodies gym, stumble upon a CD filled with what they believe to be government secrets. In truth, they have only the memoir — or, if you prefer, “mem-wah” — of Osborne Cox (John Malkovich), a mid-ranking CIA analyst recently dismissed from the service because his alcoholism had begun to interfere with his work. Seeking to profit from their discovery, Linda and Chad try to extort money from Osborne. But negotiations break down, leaving Chad with a bloody nose and prompting Linda and her partner to resort to plan B: selling the secrets to the Russians.
In 2008, this was a joke, and a good joke. The United States wasn’t on great terms with Russia, but it wasn’t on the top of any 2008 list of threats to American democracy. Going to the Russians rather than some other antagonistic entity was just another sign that Linda and Chad had no idea what they were doing, that their notion of international espionage had advanced no further than Roger Moore–era James Bond movies. What’s more, they can’t even manage to keep this misguided bit of intrigue a secret. The film begins, ends, and occasionally returns to CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, where an unnamed high-ranking CIA official played by J.K. Simmons occasionally confers with a trusted senior agent named Palmer (David Rasche). Palmer’s been tipped off to Linda and Chad’s attempt to commit treason, but when he conveys this information to his boss, he’s met with incredulity. “The Russians?” Simmons’s character asks twice, as if hearing the name of an old high-school acquaintance he hadn’t thought about in years.
The Cold War had long since receded from view and our current conflict with Russia — an economically struggling totalitarian regime using a combination of military force, emerging technology, and underhanded tactics updated from old KGB playbooks to keep a toehold on the world stage — hadn’t yet come to light. In a joke layered on top of a joke, the Coens depict the Russians as still stuck in their own past. The Russian embassy is a blocky, brutalist structure seemingly transported brick-by-brick from behind the Iron Curtain. (It’s actually Washington’s Robert C. Weaver Federal Building, home to HUD, whose former secretary, Jack Kemp, once called it “10 floors of basement.”) Only the ubiquitous photographs of Vladimir Putin staring down at the embassy staff suggest anything has changed, but even this plays like a gag, as if they’d simply taken the place of the old portraits of Lenin but now serve much the same purpose.
It’s easy to experience a weird kind of time warp watching Burn After Reading now. The flip phones and Chad’s ever-present iPod shuffle feel like they belong a decade in the past. But this idea of Russia? Can it really only have been ten years ago the country felt so marginal? If the Coens had built the whole film around this joke, it would probably still be funny. There aren’t that many jokes in Coen brothers movies that don’t work. (Putting aside large chunks of Intolerable Cruelty and most of The Ladykillers.) But it’s the Coens’ ability to tap into deeper truths about spying, governing, and human behavior that makes Burn After Reading look even better in 2018 than it did in 2008, when it earned mostly positive but rarely glowing reviews.
In a 2017 article for the New Republic, Jeet Heer praised the prophetic qualities of a film in which craven morons betray their country through some ill-considered outreach to the Russians. It’s hard to escape that parallel, but what really makes Burn After Reading work is its depiction of its characters — would-be and professional spies alike — as prone to the same weaknesses as everyone else. Osborne imagines himself to be carrying on some grand intellectual spy tradition and refers to his dismissal as a political “crucifixion” when really he’s a self-mythologizing drunk whose security level doesn’t even cause Simmons’s character to raise an eyebrow. What real harm could he cause?
Linda’s single-minded focus on plastic surgery makes the idea of selling out her country seem like not such a big deal. Others tangled up in the mess include Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), a former secret service officer turned Treasury employee who spends much of the film working on some secret construction project in his basement — accompanied by some of the most ominous cues in Carter Burwell’s hilariously straight-faced score — that’s ultimately revealed to be a DIY sex chair, a piece of hardware for a life largely spent chasing after women. Whatever ideals these characters may hold have become distant background noise to the pursuit of wealth, pleasure, and other, more immediate goals.
They’re characters in a Joel and Ethan Coen movie, in other words. Since Blood Simple, the Coens have explored how greed and lust lead to chaos. Their most admirable heroes tend to be those able to live with enough restraint to remove themselves from the cycle, like The Big Lebowski’s the Dude or Fargo’s Marge Gunderson. The stark contrast between Marge and the character McDormand plays here makes her work here seem even richer. Marge is not only a good person, she’s canny operator who knows to keep her feelings to herself. Linda seemingly doesn’t know how to leave a thought unexpressed, be it her disappointment with her body or the moral lines she blasts through to get what she wants. She assumes everyone else thinks the same way, and maybe she’s not wrong.
And, in Coen world, what’s true for Hardbodies employees is true for those who protect our country’s secrets. Even the grubbiest, least romantic spy stories of the John le Carré school still treat the occupation itself with a kind of reverence, but Burn After Reading has no such worries. Osborne’s a fool, and he’s the only one who doesn’t know it. He keeps his secrets in a house open to men like Harry, with whom Osborne’s imperious wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) is having an affair, and easily accessed by those who want to break in. It’s all a sordid circle in which, as Palmer tells his boss, “They all seem to be sleeping with each other.”
There are shades of David Petraeus, whose tangling of his extramarital affairs with national intelligence would become a national scandal a few years later. Shades, too, of Peter Strzok and Lisa Page. But also shades of what was then the recent past, when some combination of bad information, selectively chosen intelligence, and lies led to the invasion of Iraq. What reverence is owed a branch of the government capable of failure on such a grand scale? The Coens may deserve some credit for predicting the future, however outmoded their depiction of Russia looks now, but they deserve even more for turning the bleak absurdity of their present into such brilliant black comedy.
There’s a second joke in Burn After Reading that’s aged strangely, and it too involves the Langley office of J.K. Simmons’s unnamed but powerful and important CIA official. At the end of the film, Palmer briefs him on the latest updates of the messy situation. They talk it through, conclude that all the loose ends have tied up, then close the book on the matter. “I guess we learned not to do it again,” Simmons’s character concludes, continuing, “Fucked if I knew what we did.” It’s a screw-up, sure, but at least it’s been contained. And while they’ll have other such situations in their future, it’s good to know that, on some level, there are grown-ups who will be there to make sure things don’t get too out of hand — a kind of deep state, or steady state, or whatever you want to call it, whatever helps you sleep better at night as it becomes increasingly clear that there aren’t any grown-ups in charge anymore. The film’s last joke is on us.