The True ‘Burn After Reading’
The Coen Brothers — and Trump— take a hatchet to evangelical Christianity
This article was written in the halcyon days when our former president was merely guilty of abusing the power of his office to improve his reelection prospects — as compared to now, when he is guilty of orchestrating a vicious attack on peaceful protesters to stage a photo op in front of a church and of inciting a violent insurrection to overturn the results of a free and fair election.
With the Trump election team’s bumbling attempts to coordinate with Russia — not to mention Rudy Colludy Giuliani on the loose in Ukraine to chase down debunked conspiracy theories on behalf of Trump — the president and his band of idiot cronies invite easy comparisons to the characters in the Coen brothers’ under-appreciated 2008 classic, Burn After Reading. Indeed, as Jeet Heer (an early champion of Trump/BAR equivalence) wrote in the New Republic, the film “stands as singularly prophetic of the Trump era.” And just last week, the NYT’s Ross Douthat appended Heer’s analogy to include the sloppy and overzealous FBI agents on the Trump-Russia case. Truly, it would be nearly impossible for a group of people to more closely approximate the Coens’ pitch black farce than is accomplished by those in the orbit of Trump’s never-ending Russian misadventure.
Of course, the Coen brothers being the Coen brothers, there is the superficial plot to the movie — but there is also the underlying subtext, often what the film is really about. So while it’s nice that we have a handy pop-culture reference point for the buffoonery of the Trump administration, the movie initially left many reviewers unsatisfied, because they perceived it as a lazy exercise in nihilism — a cast of cartoonish, deeply flawed characters betraying and murdering each other for cheap, formulaic laughs. They wondered why the Coens would inflict this bleak view of humanity on their audience for no real purpose. But what if Joel and Ethan were directing their ire at a more specific target?
I’ve long thought that Burn After Reading was the Coens’ evisceration of the modern ‘prosperity gospel’ style evangelical Christianity — “burn after reading” being their sly plea with respect to the New Testament as it is understood in this evangelical context. Below, I lay out the case for this interpretation and then return to the subject of Trump — and his own bizarre relationship with religion.
The movie opens with Osborne Cox (John Malkovich) being demoted in the CIA for a drinking problem, and complaining that he is being crucified — even holding his arms out in crucified fashion. In the next scene, at home, his wife Katie (Tilta Swinton) mumbles “cheeses” twice, which sounds quite a bit like “Jesus.” Throughout the movie, his most common outfit is a bathrobe. The name Osborne means “God born.” There is no doubt that the Coens intended Cox as a Jesus figure. Still not convinced? Read on…
In a subsequent scene, Cox confesses to his father (i.e., Father) that — in service to a “higher patriotism” — he’s leaving the CIA and writing a memoir that could be explosive. In reality, later in the movie, his superiors in the CIA dismiss the potential value of the memoir because Cox only had “Level 3” access to intelligence. As the scene ends, it is clear that his father is in a vegetative state, and thus Cox was purposelessly confessing to essentially no one.
His first attempts to write this memoir are platitudinal gibberish:
“We were young and committed and there was nothing we couldn’t do…”
After abandoning the effort, he proceeds to get drunk and watch game shows. His wife returns home that night to discover that he’s gone to his Princeton reunion. This is the bacchanal “last supper” scene with Cox getting obscenely drunk and singing the sexist, outdated version of Princeton’s alma mater: Old Nassau.
Worried by his plan to quit work and write this memoir — and anyway having an affair with George Clooney’s character U.S. Marshall Harry Pfarrer (‘pfarrer’ is German for minister/pastor)— Katie decides to see a divorce lawyer, who advises her to snoop and download a copy of Osborne’s financials to get a picture of what the divorce would look like monetarily.
Cut to middle-aged gym worker Linda Litzke (Frances McDormand) at a plastic surgeon’s office. She’s trying to reinvent herself by upgrading her body to improve her internet dating prospects, but the insurance company won’t pay for the procedure because it is elective. Devastated by this news, she has a heart-to-heart with her boss Ted, the “soulful manager of the Hardbodies gym” (as he is described throughout the Coens’ script), who tries to convince her that she is beautiful in her current form. He’s a former Greek Orthodox minister and represents traditional religion and true goodness throughout the movie. For Linda, the battle is between this goodness (which she thinks is loser-ish) and the quick/easy answers of plastic surgery and online dating.
Then, a stroke of luck! Her dimwitted coworker Chad (Brad Pitt) gets his hands on Katie’s CD (from the janitor, who found it in the Hardbodies bathroom) with Cox’s memoir and his financial data, which Chad interprets as “intelligence shit” — a clear mockery of the New Testament and Christians generally. Linda sees her opportunity to obtain her self-reinvention money through some sort of finders fee from whoever lost the disc. Ted, the soulful manager, is uncomfortable with the situation.
And this is really the essence of it all. Linda and Chad first attempt to blackmail Osborne for the finders fee, and — when he refuses — they take it to the Russians, who ultimately dismiss the memoir as “drivel,” again insulting the New Testament.
All of the characters are sleeping around or cheating on each other (with the notable exception of Osborne, who is morally clean in this regard) and are being spied on by divorce lawyers or the Hardbodies crew — and misinterpret this as State/CIA following them. This is an interesting take on God “watching us” — largely it’s divorce lawyers and our own guilty conscience. Clooney’s final scene is a hilarious culmination of this concept.
The spying and sneaking ends with soulful Ted (after having been guilted into it by Linda) breaking into Cox’s basement to steal more “intelligence shit” to be used as leverage somehow to get back Chad (who, unbeknownst to Linda, was accidentally shot dead by U.S. Marshal Harry). Cox — yet again clad in a Jesus-esque bathrobe — catches Ted and then shoots him and hacks him to death with a hatchet. This is quite a visual: the Jesus character hacking traditional religion to death.
But really the CIA (read: God) had been monitoring everything all along. The final scene of the movie is in CIA headquarters, with higher-ups essentially recapping the plot as they lazily wonder what they could have done differently. To get her to keep her mouth shut, they pay for Linda’s plastic surgery, which lays bare the moral lesson of the movie: you ultimately can get what you want from the the Coens’ “Christianity”… but at what cost?
The movie ends with the revelation that the CIA agents couldn’t just sit there and watch soulful Ted get hacked to death, so they stepped in and shot Cox.
“He’s in a coma- we don’t think he’s going to make it… they're pretty sure he has no brain function.”
Or will he come back from the dead, so to speak?
And the movie’s final line:
“Jesus Fucking Christ”
Fast forward to 2019 — assuming that my above analysis is correct and the Coens’ dim worldview is not directed towards humanity generally, but rather towards the cheap and brainless brand of religion offered by ‘prosperity gospel’ Christianity — what could typify the subject of their ire better than the evangelical-backed retrograde cult of Donald Trump? It would be impossible to exhaustively chronicle the moral deficiencies of Trump himself, being limited by my time here on Earth, but this is a man who lives by ritual dishonesty, betrayal, bullying, and ostentation. Further, Trump bears a persecution complex that may have even caused an unhinged Osborne Cox to blush. And in spite of all of this, Trump enjoys the near-universal adoration of a sect of Christianity that purports to be among the most devoted followers of Christ.
Enter into the fray Christianity Today, the magazine and evangelical organization founded by Billy Graham in the 1950s, which last week published a widely shared editorial, “Trump Should Be Removed from Office.” The article makes the sound case for his impeachment on evidentiary grounds, but further dives into the abyss of Trump’s character: “His Twitter feed alone — with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders — is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
Trump, predictably, lashed out at CT (or “ET” as he called it): “The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!” But had he actually read the article, he would have noticed that CT had a ready response to this:
Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.
The Coens essentially make this same point with their character Linda Litzke: “Sure, Linda, enjoy your new and improved body, but realize that the moral cost of this has been incredible” — hardly the nihilistic message that they have been accused of delivering.
And so I’ll close by recognizing the general brilliance of Joel and Ethan Coen, who eerily and compactly captured the abject idiocy of the Trump administration and the total moral failure of the Trump cult in a superficially farcical 90 minute movie — a film that was supposedly one of the Coens’ throw-away efforts. Sufficeth to say, if you want to understand more about the human condition, you should give their catalog your serious attention.
By contrast, when we’re mercifully able to turn the page on this sad chapter of American history, let’s burn after reading.