Despite being hilarious, Burn After Reading is one of the Coen brothers’ darkest, most unforgiving creations. In it, a pair of aging gym rats stumble upon a CD containing the memoirs of a former CIA analyst; it’s worthless, but, being very, very dumb, they think it contains “secret spy shit.” Their journey eventually leads them to the Russian Embassy, where they try to score a reward for what they think is compromising information. In the end, half of the cast is dead or incarcerated while the government—U.S. and Russian—scratches their heads. “I’m fucked if I know what we did,” says J.K. Simmons’ Deep State operative.
The very mention of Russia probably tickled the part of your brain that’s been following the news, which has more or less been consumed by our current administration’s dalliances with the Russian government, the latest of which centers around Donald Trump’s greaseball son. All that talk of idiots playing fast and loose with treasonous activities probably rang a bell, too.
In “We Are Living In The Coen Brothers’ Darkest Comedy,” a new piece in the New Republic, author Jeet Heer directly addresses the similarities between what was meant to be an absurd piece of political satire and the sad reality of politics under a Trump presidency. His conclusions are, like the end of the film, as soul-crushing as they are amusing.
The most disturbing thing about Burn After Reading, though, is how it resembles every day in Trump’s Washington, where the line between blundering idiocy and malevolent conspiracy is increasingly blurred. Yet for all its dark prescience, Burn After Reading almost feels too optimistic. Though there is tragedy and death throughout the film, the Deep State is able to restore some semblance of normality to the world. In Washington, even as the Trump administration’s incompetence gets pushback from the intelligence community, there’s no real hope for going back to the way things were. Trump’s antics are relentlessly normalized by Republicans in Congress and the conservative media, whose latest defense is that incompetent collusion isn’t a crime. That’s a story perhaps too dark even for the Coen brothers—where stupidity leads to attempted treason, but such behavior is waved away as everyday politics.
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