Analysis: “Burn after Reading”

Having become an admirer of the Coen Brothers’ films, Burn after Reading is a dark-comedy favorite. In general, the film can be analyzed psycho-socially as one that demonstrates the degree to which egocentric people will go in violating the sacred boundaries of society in order to appear to embody and conform to its ideals. From a more focused and steeper angle, this film, like Kelley’s film, The Locusts, Altman’s 3 Women, and others by the Coens, such as A Serious Man, portrays what has been called “the problematic reemergence of Ishtar.” In the dramatic opening scene, the Divine Feminine descends invisibly towards her unsuspecting target before exploding across the screen, but without the pyrotechnics that the masculine approach to power understands. 

The lead macho male characters, played by John Malkovich and George Clooney, are ultimately defeated by the Divine Feminine via their childless, financially-independent, cool-headed (or cold-blooded), and ruthlessly pragmatic wives—one an MD and pediatrician, and the other a popular author of children’s books—aided throughout the unraveling of the men’s lives by the lack of cohesiveness among Western society males in general. The philosophy expressed by the characters is that there are three kinds of people: winners, losers, and those who get in the way. 

Directly and indirectly, actively and passively, unconsciously and intentionally, by design and synchronistically, all of the men in the story—including the CIA chief, the lawyer, the father, the private investigator, the doctor, the fitness club trainer, the former priest, and others—actively or passively contribute to the decimation of Malkovich’s and Clooney’s characters, while managing to further promote Ishtar’s agenda to the point of some men killing others in the process. Yet Ishtar holds some sympathy for the female-gratifying Clooney, who is frightened into exiling himself from the United States and allowed to live. 

As if intuiting Ishtar’s hidden agenda, at one point Malkovich’s character refers to the fitness club manager—who has broken into Malkovich’s home in witlessly eager service to Ishtar’s (Frances McDormand’s character’s) agenda—as being part of “a league of morons” that has plagued him all of his life. Despite that divine insight, borne of his CIA analyst intellect together with his self-medicating inebriation, Malkovich fails to notice that he is rapidly gaining world-class credentials for membership in that league. 

Ishtar, via McDormand’s character, fully expects her desired cosmetic surgery to be paid by her health insurer which clearly would not cover such procedures—none do—a truth that she assails as being incredibly unreasonable. In her quest to gain the youth-restoring surgeries that she envisions as paramount to recapturing her sexual allure, she is willing to do—or seduce her male minions into doing—anything, including committing treason by giving what she believes are government secrets to foreign spies. Ishtar is unrestrained by rules of human law, or religious morality, or political ideology. 

In the end, McDormand’s character becomes the champion, the dominant beneficiary of the whole messy matrix of tangled inter- and intra-gender combat that results in deaths, divorces, and property damages. The Goddess finally gets her way in the most unpredictable and bizarre manner: by passively blackmailing the CIA—the best equipped fortress of masculinity on the planet—which cheerfully pays for it all. And yet the CIA men, like the other men in the story, do not understand what, or who, has hit them. The same can be said for a large number of film critics, which, for us, adds another “confederacy of idiots” layer of humor to the Coen Brothers’ five-star production.

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