The Lost Art of Intelligence
The Coen brother’s latest film Burn After Reading boasts an A-list cast, spot-on dialogue, and their usual, unexpected plot twists. Yet this film feels uneasy at times, somehow difficult to watch. The fault, or perhaps better put, reason behind this is Mr. Joel and Mr. Ethan have expertly written very dumb characters. Not nostalgically moronic as with Raising Arizona or O Brother Where Art Thou, but dumb in a modern sense, thoughtless, empty headed fools, with transparent motives and appallingly limited vocabularies.
The consequence is a brutal statement simultaneously on bumbling government service, exercise-centric jocks, and idiosyncratic misanthropes all under the back drop of contemporary Washington DC.
George Clooney plays a half bright Treasury department employee whose only real reason for living is to have sex. Brad Pitt plays a personal trainer, a person whose job tries to help people become more appealing, sexier. Sex, in fact, and the need for sexual attraction, is at the very heart of the Coens message in this film. Infidelity, attraction, and divorce are three key lynchpins to the text of this film. The Coens do such a good job and zeroing in on the most basic and universal of human needs, if only to watch them collide and destroy each other.
New to the Coen circle is John Malkovich who, if this film does have a point, plays its chief martyr. Quirky, gifted, yet off message with the CIA, Malkovich’s spy Osbornc Cox is bombarded throughout the film with fool upon desperate fool seeking their own narrow minded narrative. There is mention, although not by his character, of the lost art behind intelligence, as though in our modern times, all information is accessible, if one only has access to the proper database. Cox represents that lost art, that tradition of innovative government service that our post 9/11 world could sorely benefit from, but has seemingly lost the capacity to deem valuable. Cox has no place among modern spies, seems relegated to the pages of his own shitty memoirs.
The message, clearly, is that to be brilliant, unique, truly intelligent, one often must step beyond talking points and rhetoric and attempt to acheive original insight. This is by far the Coen’s most immediate film, in that it seems to react or comment on the partisan political sally that the intelligence community has been manipulated by, as if to suggest that all of the Osborne Cox’s in US intelligence may eventually be rooted out, much to the detriment to the collective intelligence community.
Granted, it is never entirely clear what, if anything, Malkovich’s Cox contributed to the greater good of the intelligence community, but, with much thanks to those cunning Coens, we are clearly convinced of his ill-tempered, misanthropic genius. With recent headlines documenting State Department officials, during the Bush administration, hiring new recruits not for their competence or abilities, but for willingness to remain in line with administration directives, this film illuminates well the resultant brain drain that follows in its wake.
The message, in my never to be humble estimation, is: stay weird, be brilliant.
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