NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE L et’s look back at the two and a half years when the greatest country on earth went crazy. What was that all about? How did it happen? How could so much have happened based on so little? Did we learn anything? It’ll take a keenly observant artist to put it all in perspective. Fortunately two artists have already done so. The Coen Brothers made a movie about the whole shambles back in 2008.
Twelve years ago Joel and Ethan Coen’s wack comedy Burn After Reading didn’t strike me as anything much, with its random and grotesque plot twists, but today it looks like it so perfectly understood how Washington works that it provided the template for how L’Affaire Mueller would play out. (Spoilers follow; the film is streaming on Starz.)
At the end of the movie, a disbelieving C.I.A. chief played by J. K. Simmons contemplates the 90 minutes of total insanity we’ve just seen, with several lives violently ended and others permanently damaged because of a misunderstanding on the part of a pair of idiotic gym rats, and says, “I’m f***ed if I know what we did.” Somewhere out there in Mueller land some earnest career public servant must be saying the exact same thing. People were interrogated by the FBI, lives were ruined, jail terms were sternly handed down, Michael Flynn was stripped of $5 million and demolished. All of this happened . . . why? Because of a . . . rumor about a pee tape? Disbelief that Donald Trump could have been legitimately elected president without some nefarious foreign interference? Anger about John Podesta’s emails leaking out because he fell for a dopey phishing scheme? Fretting about Russian Facebook memes featuring Jesus arm-wrestling Satan?
Can wise, dedicated, highly trained public servants really have allowed themselves to get torched in this moronic inferno? “You’re part of a league of morons,” says the Princeton-educated career CIA analyst Osbourne, played by John Malkovich, when he thinks he has sorted out all of the fallacies that have led him to train a pistol on a lovelorn gym manager in his basement. But the joke’s on “Ozzy,” as colleagues call him. He’s the biggest moron of all because his miscalculations are what got the whole thing going. If he had accepted a transfer from the CIA to the State Department rather than making his wife furious by quitting his job in a huff, and if he hadn’t taken to writing his memoirs as a self-deluding form of payback against the Agency, he wouldn’t be facing the fate that awaits him, which is getting shot to death in his bathrobe. Personal trainers, Treasury Department security officers, the Ivy League WASP aristocracy at Langley: They’re all part of the Washington League of Morons.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Burn After Reading is a sort of anti–All the President’s Men, a Washington movie whose unstated premise is that we should never attribute to malice that which can be explained by stupidity. Ozzy, whose wife, Katie (Tilda Swinton), is cheating on him with a vain Treasury Department bodyguard turned bureaucrat (George Clooney), storms out of his job as an intelligence analyst rather than accept a less important role. She’s vain enough to think the Clooney character could be her next husband, not knowing that he’s sleeping with lots of women and doesn’t take their affair seriously. Consulting a divorce lawyer, Katie is told to gather Ozzy’s financial information before filing for divorce, so she downloads everything from his computer on a disk. One file on the disk is the book he’s writing, which is a compendium of self-aggrandizing Potomac clichés: “The principles of George Kennan — a personal hero of mine — were what animated us. In fact they were what had originally inspired me to enter government service. Like the State Department’s China Hands of yore . . .”
Katie leaves the disk in her workout bag, which is discovered by a pair of gym employees, Chad and Linda (Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand). Both of these characters are also defined by their vanity: Chad, the dumbest of dumb guys, fancies himself a spy manqué, and Linda desperately wants to remake herself with an elaborate series of cosmetic surgeries that she can’t believe her insurance won’t cover. Chad, discovering the disk Katie has left behind, mistakenly thinks it’s full of top-secret spy stuff when it’s just a memoir plus bank statements: “Numbers and dates and numbers . . . And numbers. I think that’s the s***, man. The raw intelligence,” he says. The pair decide to blackmail Ozzy. Then people start getting killed.
Burn After Reading has the same structure as the Mueller affair: It’s a void that draws people to look at it, and some of those people fall in, or get pushed in. Toward the end of the movie, with their typical deadpan, the Coen Brothers quietly drop a clue that Ozzy not only didn’t have any classified info on his home computer, he didn’t have access to any especially important intelligence in the first place. For all of his self-importance, Ozzy is just one of the armies of nonentities who mistake themselves for mission-critical elements of the apparatus of power in D.C. When the CIA boss asks what level of security clearance Osbourne has, he is given the answer, “Three.” Says the chief, “Okay, okay. No biggie.” “No biggie!” Osbourne, who thinks of himself as a successor to George Kennan, is such a bit player that after decades of service in the Agency he didn’t matter enough to be given access to any information the CIA is particularly concerned about. This supposed sage’s entire career in the capital amounts to: “No biggie.”
After Watergate, Washington movies were built around a notion that we’d all been too naïve about how much corruption there was in Washington. Burn After Reading is one of the few films that take account of how much more sophisticated about politics we’ve become since the Nixon era. Today we know that bumbling rather than villainy can explain a lot. There may have been corruption behind the Mueller investigation, but there need not have been. Tens of millions of dollars of public money, thousands of hours of gumshoeing, and untold quantities of punditry can all be set on fire by some combination of stupidity and vanity. Where else could so many resources get thrown at chasing down a rumor based on a nonexistent pee tape, while everyone involved pompously told themselves they were saving the Republic?