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: