How the Coen Brothers’ Most Underrated Movie Explains the Petraeus Affair

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Nov. 13 2012 4:39 PM

Burn After Petraeus

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Frances McDormand, Paula Broadwell, David Petraeus, and Brad Pitt


Ever since G. Gordon Liddy dispatched his bungling burglars to the Watergate Hotel, it’s been axiomatic in Washington that the cover-up is worse than the crime. But the Petraeus affair has yet to produce evidence of either, just a rapidly unraveling skein of backstabbing and petty jealousies. (The New Yorker’s Ben Greenman tweeted that the scandal was “threatening to blow the lid off human nature.”) As the revelations wildly pour forth, the affair just grows sadder and more sordid. The indiscretions that felled one of the country’s most esteemed military leaders and may take down another have so far been traced back to a shirtless himbo with an ideological hard-on attempting to stage a one-man October surprise.

In an era when the cost of interagency sniping is American corpses, the apparent vendetta of one FBI agent against the CIA’s top dog seems a sick joke—which may be why Joel and Ethan Coen’s pitch-black satire Burn After Reading suddenly seems so relevant. As David Haglund has noted here on Brow Beat, the movie has traditionally been little-loved among Coens aficionados, but perhaps that’s because its fans are disproportionately clustered in the political class. As journalists and pundits struggled to find a real-life analogue for the confluence of petty vendettas and seismic consequences, many turned to the Coens’ acidic farce. Salon’s Alex Pareene likened the still-unnamed FBI agent to Brad Pitt’s hapless would-be blackmailer, while the Wall Street Journal’s Bruce Orwall suggested the affair was beginning to resemble the movie’s unasked-for sequel.

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Although Burn After Reading is superficially frivolous, even silly, its outsize caricature masks a profound pessimism about the state of the nation, particularly of its citizens’ ability to rise above their own basest impulses. The sprawling conspiracy that eventually results in the death of two innocents begins with a narcissistic health-club employee (Frances McDormand) who’s short of the cash needed for cosmetic surgery. And she’s hardly the only character consumed with vanity. George Clooney’s U.S. Marshal—a former T-Man whose duties included interfacing with Homeland Security—is a serial philanderer who follows his afternoon trysts with a habitual jog. John Malkovich’s Osborn Cox, cashiered as a CIA bureau chief for his persistent alcoholism, is working on a hagiographic memoir, effectively serving as his own Paula Broadwell. Their motives are more pitiful than sinister, but the harm they do is real, and bloody.

Few of Burn After Reading’s characters are genuine spooks, but it hardly matters. When Cox’s wife (Tilda Swinton) meets with a divorce attorney, he advises her to copy her husband’s financial records before dropping the hammer, concluding, with a conspiratorial wink, “You can be a spy, too.” If everyone is investigating everyone else, then no one is safe—and more importantly, there’s no way to distinguish genuine threats from mere missteps. McDormand’s character may be wrestling with her healthcare provider’s voicemail prompt, but it’s no accident that her increasingly frustrated calls of “Agent!” go unanswered.

As we sift through the wreckage of once-honorable lives, we search for some root cause beyond bruised egos and unchecked libidos, some moral to extract, thus far finding none. Perhaps the hardest lesson of Burn After Reading—one that drives most moviegoers away, but appeals to those who watch history repeat itself in stunned circles day after day—is that we’re not bettered by our errors, that we stubbornly and stupidly insist on repeating them and will until the day we cease to exist. “What did we learn, Palmer?” J.K. Simmons’ Agency chief asks in the film’s final scene, whose bleak absurdity borders on Samuel Beckett. “I guess we learned not to do it again... I’m fucked if I know what we did.”

Sam Adams writes for the Los Angeles Times, the Philadelphia Inquirer, Time Out New York, the Onion A.V. Club, and the Philadelphia City Paper. Follow him on Twitter.

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