Burn After Reading

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(2008) ★★★★★

ITV1: Saturday 4 July, 11.15pm

When short-fused CIA analyst John Malkovich is demoted due to his drinking problem (“You’re a Mormon,” he says to his superior, “next to you, we all have a drinking problem!”), he does not take it at all well. In fact, he quits. He’ll do some consulting while writing a memoir… the notes for which end up in the butterfingered hands of Hardbodies gym trainer Brad Pitt. Even though Carter Burwell’s insinuating music is dramatic and mysterious, it’s evident right away that the Coen brothers are chiding the paranoid secrecy and bumbling that seems to permeate all ‘intelligence’ agencies. Initially a funny, breezy version of Breach, it turns a darker shade of pale just as you’re thinking ‘Ah… it’s only the Ocean’s trilogy buddies George Clooney and Brad Pitt messing about.’ Superbly cast, down to the smallest supporting players (veteran J.R. Horne is funny as the divorce lawyer and J.K. Simmons blusters as the bemused CIA boss), it makes Brad’s character (an airhead with a toilet-brush hairdo) as hyper and chatty as a gum-chewing schooolgirl, while giving Clooney’s clenched treasury agent reams of nervously naff chat-up lines. The movie’s owned by Malkovich, though, who is perfect as the viciously sarcastic and arrogant Osbourne Cox. Tilda Swinton’s fine, too, as his cheating wife, a society hostess only slightly less scary than Narnia’s White Witch. “Keep an eye on everyone,” says Simmons, “and report back to me when it makes sense.” Vanity and paranoia are mocked mercilessly throughout this twisted depiction of ‘Homeland’ security. The entire film, done and dusted inside 95 minutes, is a wonderfully sour joke that’s beautifully put together. And probably closer to the truth than any of us would care to believe. Ultimately, like Stanley Kubrick’s Cold War 60s classic Dr Strangelove, it embodies the antic spirit of Mark Twain, who sagely observed: “We are all of us fools… born so, no doubt.” Incidentally, the fed-baiting song over the end credits is CIA Man by The Fugs. Kubrick went with Vera Lynn singing We’ll Meet Again.

Certificate: 15
Duration: 96min