In a filmmaking career that spans nearly four decades, Joel and Ethan Coen have made films that defy genre classification but always maintain their distinctive humor and realist point of view. From cult comedies like “Raising Arizona” (1987) and “The Big Lebowski” (1998) to Oscar winners “Fargo” (1996) and “No Country for Old Men” (2007), the Coen brothers have become one of the defining voices of contemporary American cinema. In “The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together,” film critic Adam Nayman weaves biography, critical analysis, and interviews with Coen collaborators (including longtime cinematographer Roger Deakins) to present the definitive history of the Coen brothers oeuvre.
Published by Abrams Books in conjunction with the film magazine “Little White Lies,” “The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together” will be released on September 11, 2018. IndieWire has obtained an exclusive excerpt about the making of “Burn After Reading” (2008), as well as key art from the book.
Excerpt from “The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together” below.
RELEASED IN SEPTEMBER 2008, Burn After Reading was the Coens’ first totally original screenplay since The Man Who Wasn’t There – not work for hire, a remake, or an adaptation. In the press notes, Ethan Coen referred to the script as the brothers’ “version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne movie, without the explosions,” while also citing Otto Preminger’s 1962 political thriller Advise and Consent as an influence. The latter is a film that the Coens had actually already paid tribute to decades earlier: In The Coen Brothers: The Story of Two American Filmmakers, Josh Levine describes the teenaged Joel and Ethan remaking Advise and Consent as a Super 8 production with their friends.
Another first: Burn After Reading marked the first time since Miller’s Crossing that the Coens worked with a cinematographer other than Roger Deakins. The pinch-hitter was the brilliant Mexican-born director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki, who had previously worked with directors Michael Mann, Tim Burton, and Terrence Malick, and who went on to win Oscars for his collaborations with Alfonso Cuaron on Gravity (2013) and Alejandro González Iñárritu for Birdman (2014).
Lubezki’s visual signature is a roaming, agile Steadicam, and the opening shot of Burn After Reading gives the cinematographer plenty of room to maneuver. It’s a bird’s-eye view of CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia— a top-down look at the epicenter of American military intelligence. Village Voice critic J. Hoberman, no fan of the Coens for what he has long perceived as their glibly skillful sensibility, wrote that this high-angle image hinted at the filmmakers’ perennial “Coendescension” toward their characters. Whether or not this visual overture was composed with condescension in mind or Hoberman’s own contempt for the directors got the better of him, it vividly and clearly establishes one of the major themes of the movie, which is “The Big Picture.” Or, more specifically, it establishes the inability of the people on-screen to see The Big Picture taking shape around them.
There are two main sets of characters in Burn After Reading. The first are all either members or satellites of the government-intelligence community in Washington, DC. These are Osborne “Oz” Cox (John Malkovich), a longtime cog in the CIA machine who, as the film opens, is being fired from his post at the “Balkan desk,” a designation indicating a certain distance from the action; Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney), an ex–Secret Serviceman now working as a private security consultant; and Katie Cox (Tilda Swinton), Osborn’s apparently long-suffering wife, who is carrying on a clandestine a air with Harry. The second set of characters work at a (fictional) downtown Washington gym called Hardbodies: chipper personal trainer Chad Feldheimer (Brad Pitt); middle- aged administrator Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand); and kindly o ce manager Ted Tre on (Richard Jenkins), who not-so-secretly loves Linda and so tolerates her mediocre job performance.
The division between these groups has been conceived by the Coens as a Cartesian split between people who make their living with their brains, and people who are paid to maintain their bodies and those of their clientele. As Burn After Reading goes on, the they begin to mingle in ways that prove increasingly destructive. At the same time, the film slyly implies that the factions actually have a lot in common. Nowhere is this made clearer than in the characters of Oz and Linda, who never meet on-screen but still appear as distorted mirror images of each other.
Oz is a misanthrope with a severe drinking problem, which gets worse after his termination from the Agency. He plans to stick it to his former employers by writing a tell-all about his career—the ultimate violation for a man who has sworn to uphold his country’s secrets. In his forced retirement he’s a sad, emasculated figure, padding around in a bathrobe. The little bit we hear of Oz’s “mémoire” (Malkovich’s affected pronunciation of the word is a through-line in his performance) suggests a raging egomaniac bent on revenge rather than revelation, and, like Barton Fink, he suffers from writer’s-blocked delusions of literary grandeur—to hear him tell it, he was an architect of twentieth-century American diplomacy.
More specifically, Oz calls himself one of “Kennan’s boys,” a reference the Coens drop with purpose and precision. A prime mover behind the Truman Doctrine and subsequent expansions of the so-called “containment” strategy in the United States’ conflict with the Soviet Union, Kennan was a true paradigm figure. His idea of “strategically limiting” Russia provided the foundation for the Cold War and, trickling down into the 1960s, provided the basis for the country’s “police action” in Vietnam.
Oz’s identification with Kennan fits with his complaints that “things have changed” since the Cold War—that since the collapse of the Soviet Union, American intelligence seems more a matter of bureaucracy than of a clear-cut mission. (For this Cold Warrior, the United States has suddenly become no country for old men.) Far from simply using politics as window dressing for their comedy, the Coens are staking out a position here, using Oz as a mouthpiece for a commentary on the changing sociopolitical landscape while also suggesting that he’s painfully out of touch. The paranoia he lived with— the tension of mutually assured destruction— has faded away.
Given the post–9/11 setting, it would potentially make sense for Burn After Reading to stake out a different dialectic, contrasting the now- thawed Cold War with The War on Terror. The Coens are looking in another direction entirely. They’re not genuinely concerned with twenty- first-century geopolitics, but instead with the conflation of political and personal paranoia, which becomes the film’s true subject, as well as unlocking its hybrid methodology: a romantic comedy combined with a political thriller.