Burn After Reading: Memoirs in the Movies

My husband Stuart and I went to our local theater Friday night and saw the Coen brothers’ latest film, Burn After Reading.    One reviewer called it a smart movie about stupid people.  I would call it not-quite-smart movie but definitely agree about the stupid people part.

Only a viewer obsessed with memoir would have thought of this, but my reaction to the film connects to several of the posts already offered in this space.  First of all, the whole plot revolves around a CIA agent, Osbourne Cox, who gets fired and decides to–you guessed it–write his memoirs.  As you know, memoirs are written by famous people.  Part of the fun of this movie is that Ozzie, as his wife calls him, does not recognize that the best he could hope for is a memoir.  To write his memoirs, he would first have to have been the Number One Spook.  Undeterred by the rules of the game and fortified by his Princeton connections and multiple glasses of Scotch, Ozzie  takes up a digital recorder and begins his story.

The computer where he stores his nascent attempts at life writing becomes the focal point for theater of the absurd.  A jewel case containing a CD copy of the hard drive of Ozzie’s computer made by Ozzie’s wife, given to her lawyer, and carried to the local Hard Body gym by the lawyer’s administrative assistant, is found by a janitor.  When two crazy trainers, played by Brad Pitt and Frances McDormand, put the disk in their own computers, they think they have found a goldmine–secret CIA documents.  From there, the plot unfurls with one crazy mishap after another.

This movie is a romp on the darkside of human nature, so it prompts the question of how memoir writing itself potentially connects to the dark side.  Supposedly, the Coen brothers borrowed the title, minus one word, from a real author–Admiral Stansfield Turner–whose memoirs were called Burn Before Reading.

The content of Turner memoirs has little or nothing to do with the plot of the movie.  But the idea of a former agent writing his memoirs is so much a fixture of our culture that it becomes easy fodder for satire.  We have retired generals on television constantly critiquing the military decisions of current generals–or the ones they themselves were part of before they retired.  We have aspiring presidents and former presidents who make more money selling books than they ever made in office.  Similarly, we have CEO’s who almost bankrupt America with their greed and carelessness, who walk away with mucho millions of dollars as severance pay.  Some of these memoirs are profound and helpful, some are just self-serving, and some are actually destructive.

Any writer, either of memoir or of memoirs, needs to wrestle hard with the question of motive.  Why do I want to tell my story?  How honest am I prepared to be?  If we are writing for fame, glory, revenge, or just because we can, we will never write a classic memoir.  We might even do lots of damage.  Just ask Ozzie.

Shirley Showalter

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