Burn After Reading: A Comedic Political Thriller

George Clooney and Frances McDormand in Burn After Reading. Courtesy of Focus Features.

The Coen brothers find a way to mix both political thriller and dark comedy in Burn After Reading to give us a beautiful piece of cinema.

Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich) quits his job as a CIA analyst and uses this newfound time to write his memoir.  His wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), sees this and continues having an affair with U.S. Marshal Harry Pfarrer (George Clooney).  It feels like everybody is having an affair as we later find out.  Okay, not quite everybody.  Anyway, Katie unknowingly copies Osbourne’s memoir onto a CD.  When she leaves it on the floor at Hardbodies, it soon ends up in the hands of two employees at the gym, Chad Feldheimer (Pitt) and Linda Litzke (McDormand).  Chad and Linda are not the smartest people in the world and well, their behavior speaks for itself.

Chad and Linda end up devising a plan to get rich from this.  Part of this plot somehow involves Linda going out with Harry.  You see where this is going?  Of course, they first pitch the Russian embassy.  It’s a Coen brothers film so naturally, they end up meeting with a CIA spy.  This is the sort of humor you’d expect from them!  And then later, things happen between Harry and Chad and well, you just have to see for yourself.  That’s one thing I’m not going to take away from anyone who is reading this but hasn’t watched the film.  Again, this is a Coen brothers movie and it stars both George Clooney and Brad Pitt so, umm, why have you yet to watch the film?!?  I know you’ve seen the Ocean’s franchise!

There’s a lot happening here but it would give away the film even though this film is–checks notes–twelve years old.  I’m a Coen brothers fan and nobody should have these experiences ruined when watching their films for the first time.  Let’s just say that the humor in this film is absurd.  And yet, it’s so perfect for this film.  I’m not really about to get into George Clooney’s character and his antics.  What I will say is that the Coens drive it up a notch when Harry’s wife, Sandy (Elizabeth Marvel), wants a divorce.  This film sees the first of two instances where Tuckman Marsh is used in a Coen brothers film.  What is priceless on screen is watching how Harry reacts to being followed and subsequently served by a divorce attorney.  The Coens and Clooney are a match made in heaven.

Carter Burwell turns in a memorable percussive score for the film.  The film blends multiple genres whereas the characters most certainly think they are in a spy thriller.  This is where the film manages to pay homage to political thrillers including Seven Days in May.  The score also expands on the film’s paranoia theme, which you’ll find will describe a number of characters.

In watching the bonus features on the Blu-ray, the Coen brothers refer to the film as “our version of a Tony Scott/Jason Bourne kind of movie, without the explosions.”  I can see this.  Both films have the CIA involved with the main plotline.  Anyway, the brothers are not really using the film to make any particular comments on what was happening in Washington during the Bush administration.  And yet, watching it again during the Trump administration, you’d think the Coen brothers own some sort of time machine!  Burn After Reading just happens to be a mix of comedy and politics and it’s so perfect.

CAST:  George Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton, Richard Jenkins, and Brad Pitt

Focus Features opened Burn After Reading in theaters on September 12, 2008. The film was most recently included in the Focus Features 10-Movie Spotlight Collection. Grade: 5/5

Danielle Solzman

Danielle Solzman is native of Louisville, KY, and holds a BA in Public Relations from Northern Kentucky University and a MA in Media Communications from Webster University. She roots for her beloved Kentucky Wildcats, St. Louis Cardinals, Indianapolis Colts, and Boston Celtics. Living less than a mile away from Wrigley Field in Chicago, she is an active reader (sports/entertainment/history/biographies/select fiction) and involved with the Chicago improv scene. She also sees many movies and reviews them. She has previously written for Redbird Rants, Wildcat Blue Nation, and Hidden Remote/Flicksided. From April 2016 through May 2017, her film reviews can be found on Creators.