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Burn After Reading (2008) Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University.

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1 Burn After Reading (2008) Artemus Ward Department of Political Science Northern Illinois University

2 Coenism We will discuss how the Coen brothers use cinematic devices such as language, absurd comedy, and depictions violence to advance their narrative. The Coen’s argue that Washington, DC—and the intelligence community in particular—has undergone a transformation in recent years with professional, Ivy League intellectuals being replaced by petty, bureaucratic idiots.

3 See No Evil Adm. Stansfield Turner was CIA Director under President Jimmy Carter. He published a memoir in 2006: Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence. Both the memoir and the Coen film involve the spy agency and derive their titles from the most severe of secret classifications. In his memoir, Turner argues that the relationships between presidents and CIA directors have been severely strained over matters of politics, personality and loyalty and this rocky history led directly to the agency's two biggest intelligence failures: not preventing the 9/11 attacks and not providing the correct information about Iraq's nonexistent weapons of mass destruction. Furthermore, relationships within the Agency changed. Robert Baer, a 21-year CIA operative, explained the transition in his 2002 memoir See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism. “In the early years, most … came out of Ivy League schools. Many lived off trust funds, not their modest government pay. They played tennis, lived in Georgetown, and could tell the difference between a spinnaker and a jib. But by the mid-'60s, the establishment's romance with the CIA and espionage had cooled (the Bay of Pigs had a lot to do with this), and the CIA had to turn to Main Street to fill its ranks. Ohio State took over from Yale, and the bowlers from the tennis players.” The film makes the same points, albeit far more subtly and through an absurd comedic approach: the end of the Cold War has left the intelligence community relatively directionless and mired in bureaucratic, political, and personal turf wars. In this sense, Burn After Reading is a postmodern, anti-spy thriller that reflects the shifting post-Cold War intelligence landscape that failed miserably to stop 9/11 and find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Stansfield Turner Robert Baer

4 CIA Man The scene where Osbourne is fired because of petty jealousies and political and bureaucratic turf wars highlights how the CIA has changed: PALMER Oz, look. There's no easy way to say this. We're taking you off the Balkans desk. OSBOURNE You're----what? Why? PALMER In fact we're moving you out of Sigint entirely. OSBOURNE...What? No discussion, just----you're out? PALMER Well, we're having the discussion now Oz. This doesn't have to be unpleasant. OSBOURNE Palmer, with all due respect----what the fuck are you talking about?... And why is Olson here? PALMER... Look, Ozzie---- OSBOURNE What the fuck is this?! Is it my----I know it's not my work. PALMER Ozzie---- OSBOURNE I'm a great fucking analyst! Is it---- PALMER Oz, things are not going well. As you know. PECK You have a drinking problem. OSBOURNE I have a drinking problem. PALMER This doesn't have to be unpleasant. We found you something in State. It's a, uh... It's a lower clearance level. Yes. But we're not, this isn't, we're not terminating you. OSBOURNE This is an assault. PECK Come on, Ozzie. OSBOURNE This is an assault. I have a drinking problem? Fuck you, Peck, you're a Mormon! PECK Ozzie---- OSBOURNE Next to you we all have a drinking problem! Fuck you guys! Whose ass didn't I kiss? Let's be honest! Palmer nods at Olson. PALMER Okay, Olson---- OSBOURNE Let's be fucking honest... This is a crucifixion! This is political! Don't tell me it's not! I have a drinking problem!

5 Idiots: Intelligence is only their Job The Coen’s often portray characters who are idiots—or who at least have a degree of idiocy about them. Ethan Coen: “It’s certainly not about George Bush or anything specific politically, or other people we’re laughing at, or find amusing. We’ve all got the inner knucklehead. It’s again good fodder for stories…. A lot of our movies are about dolts.” The characters outside the government are obviously idiots: Chad and Linda are self-absorbed; obsessed with their bodies to an absurd degree. They misspeak whenever they interact with anyone with seeming intelligence. Are the characters inside the intelligence community idiots too? Is Harry an idiot even though he works in the government? Is Osbourne an idiot or is he driven to idiocy because he interacts with idiots—his colleagues at the CIA who fire him for being an alcoholic, his wife who berates him and cheats on him, and Chad and Linda who try to blackmail him. The film is an indictment of elite, U.S. culture as exemplified by Washington D.C.: The alliance of political incompetence (the CIA), the cult of appearance (the gym club, on-line dating) and vulgar stupidity (everyone). Joel Coen: “The … film is about the culture of the Central Intelligence Agency and the culture of physical fitness in Washington, D.C., and what happens when those two worlds collide. And it's also about Internet dating…. George loves to play idiots for us. We always have a really good time with him, and with Brad, too. It's a dueling idiots movie.”

6 Isn’t the Cold War Over? The idiots in the film, Chad and Linda, attempt to sell the CD to the Russians. Why? Because they grew up in the Cold War era and think in terms of Cold War spycraft—even though the Cold War ended decades ago. As a result, the intelligence characters are totally befuddled as to their motives: In the Bar: OSBOURNE... The Russians? HAL Uh-huh. OSBOURNE The Russians? HAL Uh-huh. Russian Embassy, yeah. OSBOURNE... You're sure? HAL Hey, the guy was not hard to follow. As you know. OSBOURNE Why the FUCK would they go to the Russians?! The man responds only with a shrug and a commiserating head- shake. OSBOURNE... Why the FUCK... At the CIA: PALMER... Kolyma-2 tells us that they have computer files from an ex-analyst of mine, Osbourne Cox. GARDNER CHUBB Kolyma-2? PALMER Our man in the Russian Embassy. GARDNER CHUBB Mm. PALMER It was brought to them by a woman who---- GARDNER CHUBB The Russians? PALMER Yeah. It was brought in by Linda Litzke, an associate of a guy named Harry Pfarrer. Picture's in the folder. With Pfarrer's. GARDNER CHUBB The Russians. PALMER Yeah.

7 Post-Cold War CIA The nameless and soulless upper-echelon CIA bureaucrats in the film are a bottomless pit of cheerful evil whose only concern is murdering and bribing enough people to make this messy situation go away. GARDNER Wait a minute. Where's the treasury guy? Pfarrer? PALMER Right now? GARDNER Right now. PALMER In a detention room at Washington Dulles. GARDNER Why? PALMER He was trying to board a flight to Venezuela. We had his name on a hot list, the INS pulled him. Don't know why he was going to Venezuela. GARDNER You don't know. PALMER No sir. GARDNER We have no extradition with Venezuela. PALMER Oh. Uh-huh. Well----what should we do with him? GARDNER For fuck's sake, put him on the next flight to Venezuela! PALMER Yes sir. Okay. GARDNER Okay. So the gym manager is dead. PALMER Yes sir. GARDENER The body is---- PALMER Gone, sir. GARDENER Okay---- PALMER But----there was a, uh... snag... GARDNER CHUBB What. PALMER Well. This analyst, Cox, was attacking the gym guy. It was broad daylight, on the street. Our man there didn't know what to do. He felt he had to step in. GARDNER Yes? PALMER He, uh... He shot the analyst. He shot Cox. GARDNER Good! Great! Is he dead? PALMER No sir. He's in coma. They're not sure whether he'll make it. They think, they're pretty sure he has no brain function. GARDNER Okay. Okay. If he wakes up we'll worry about it then. Jesus, what a clusterfuck. That's it then. No one else really knows anything. Okay. PALMER Um. Well sir, there is... GARDNER What. PALMER Um... GARDNER What. PALMER There is the woman. The gym woman. Linda Litzke. GARDNER CHUBB Oh yeah. Fuck. Where is she. PALMER We picked her up. We have her. GARDNER Can we, uh---- PALMER She, she, she says she'll play ball if we pay for some... I know this sounds odd----some surgeries she wants. Cosmetic surgery. She says she'll sit on everything. GARDNER How much. PALMER There were several procedures. All together they run to, um---- GARDNER Pay it. PALMER Yes sir. Should I pay it out of, should it be from---- GARDNER One of the black accounts, I don't give a shit. The January fund. Whatever. PALMER Okay. GARDNER Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ. What did we learn, Palmer. PALMER I don't know, sir. GARDNER I don't fucking know either. I guess we learned not to do it again. PALMER Yes sir. GARDNER Although I'm fucked if I know what we did. PALMER Yes sir. Hard to say. GARDNER Jesus. Jesus fucking Christ.

8 Language I: Insiders and Outsiders The Coen’s use language to denote characters who are insiders and outsiders. Joel Coen: “Whenever you do these things you want to be specific about the place that your story is set. In that respect you want to see not just the people who are in government in Washington, but also the people who are just sort of ancillary to that, who live in that community.” In Burn After Reading, the “idiot” outsider characters such as Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt) and Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) continually use incorrect or inarticulate language when interacting with the political world. Chad refers to the information on the CD as “sensitive shit.” Harry, who would seem to be an insider, tries to explain to Osbourne his food allergy: HARRY I have lactose reflux. OSBOURNE You're lactose intolerant? HARRY Yes, but I can---- OSBOURNE Or you have acid reflux? They're two different things. At the same time, Osbourne Cox—the ultimate insider—is extremely precise with language. Chad reads an excerpt of the files to Osbourne over the phone: “He had very little report with his staff.” Osbourne corrects him: “Ra-por, very little rapport with his staff, you fucking moron!” Linda calls the Russian official Mr. Krapkin even though his name is Krapotkin. The Coen’s use alien dialects to also denote insiders and outsiders. Osbourne’s extreme French pronunciation of “memoir” is pretentious. Manolo’s job as an attendant in the gym coupled with his accent suggests an uneducated, working class, immigrant. When the Russian Embassy official receives the CD he asks Chad and Linda in a thick accent: “You are non-ideological?” Chad hesitatingly replies: “I don’t think so.”

9 Language II: Rhythm and Repetition A further formal characteristic that is common to the dialogue in Coen films is the manifestation of rhythmic and repetitive language. As is the case with much of the dialogue in the Coens’ films, it is the formal attributes of the language, the emphatic and persuasive rhythms, that convey much of the meaning. The measure and tone of spoken language necessarily affects our understanding of a film. Rhythms and repetitions not only fulfill an aesthetic function but also help illuminate central meanings of the film. In short, the dialogue in a Coen brothers’ films is crucial to their style and approach. The film opens with a satellite view of Earth and zooms in to a shot of the floor inside the CIA. When the CD is discovered at the gym, Chad says: “Manolo found this, like, CD just lying in a locker. Locker floor. Ladies' locker room. Throughout the rest of the conversation Manolo says: “Jus lie-een there”… “It was jus lie-een there”… “I found it on the floor there”… “Right there on the floor there. Lie- een there.” Every time Harry (George Clooney) enters a room he comments on the flooring: “Nice floors…. What is that, forbo?” “... Wide-plank pine?” He’s always trying to exercise: “I should try to get a run in”… “I am depressed. I gotta exercise. I haven't run in three days...” “I'll be good. I'll be better. I just need to exercise. Are there pedestrian paths around here?” “I snuck in a little gym-time this morning. And our exercise last night didn't hurt!” Linda and Chad’s phone conversation with Osbourne uses repetition to establish rapport between Chad and Linda as she borrows his word choice: Chad—“He might even be so relieved he gives us a reward---- I would be very fucking surprised if he did not. Very surprised. Like, you know, the Good Samaritan tax. Which is not even a tax, really, since it's voluntary”… “I'm a Good Samaritan. I'm sorry I'm calling at such an hour, but I thought you might be worried…. Oh! Why so uptight, Osbourne Cox? I'm just a Good Samaritan, like, a traveler on the road who has happened upon----” Linda—”Like a Good Samaritan tax--- -” And later in the car with Osbourne, Chad says—” Appearances can be----deceptive. I am a mere Good Samar----”

10 Violence Gruesome, random violence is a recurring theme in Coen films as is the absurd situation of innocent people dying quickly and the guilty going unpunished. Harry mistakenly shoots Chad, Osbourne mistakenly kills Ted (innocent), Osbourne was shot by a CIA agent who witnessed him murder Ted. The violence in Burn After Reading is even more shocking by the fact that the CIA simply brushes it under the rug as the cost of doing business: GARDNER CHUBB... for now just keep an eye on everyone, see what they do. PALMER Right, sir. And----we'll interface with the FBI on this, uh, dead body? GARDNER CHUBB No! No, we don't want those idiots blundering around in this. Burn the body. Get rid of it. And keep an eye on everyone, see what they do. Report back when, um, I don't know. When it makes sense.

11 Conclusion: Meaninglessness Burn After Reading is a postmodern, anti-spy thriller in which nothing is at stake, no one acts with intelligence and everything ends badly. Ethan Coen: “As for the meaningfulness or meaninglessness of … th[e] …movie? I don’t know what to say to that, the characters… I don’t know what to say. The characters are probably leading lives that don’t have a whole lot of meaning. They can still be interesting characters and actors in an interesting story.” Is that all that life has to offer in a postmodern world?

12 Sources Coughlin, Paul, “Language Aesthetics in three films by Joel and Ethan Coen,” The Film Journal, Issue 12, April Baer, Robert, “A Dagger to the CIA,” GQ, April politics/politics/201004/dagger-to-the-cia politics/politics/201004/dagger-to-the-cia Turner, Stansfield, Burn Before Reading: Presidents, CIA Directors, and Secret Intelligence (Hyperion: 2006).


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