Early in Hail, Caesar!, the latest film from Joel and Ethan Coen, protagonist Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) speaks to a room full of religious figures: a Protestant preacher, a Catholic priest, an Orthodox clergyman, and a Jewish rabbi. Mannix, a fixer for the fictional Capitol Pictures studio, explains that their biggest release of the year – a biblical sword-and-sandals epic entitled “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” – will seek to depict the Christ respectfully and tastefully, hoping not to offend any reasonable American. The discussion that ensues is not without humor, but also broaches theological issues both directly and indirectly, with a level of seriousness and detail rarely found in modern motion pictures.
Mannix contends that “Hail, Caesar!” will be the best rendition of the Christ story. One of the clergymen gently objects that he is forgetting the Bible, but Mannix responds that, although the Bible is terrific, people will be looking to the pictures for reference. Although such a description seems like a casual deflection, the word choices deliberately stir up suggestions of incarnational doctrine: Mannix says that “Hail, Caesar!” will be the image, the realization, the embodiment of the Christ story. The Coens, like Capitol Pictures, want Hail, Caesar! to be a respectful, tasteful depiction of Christ, as deserving of the subtitle “Tale of the Christ” as the film-within-the-film, with Mannix himself as their Christ – or more specifically, one of his followers, what C.S. Lewis might call a “little Christ.”
In a comic centerpiece, an actor and director repeatedly recite the phrase, “Would that it were so simple!” This is played for comedic effect, but is also a rather effective encapsulation of the Coens’ worldview: often, their films aim to draw simple truths out of a universe that seems overwhelmingly complex. For example, A Serious Man – in many ways a companion piece to Hail, Caesar! – looked at a bleak world we have no hope of comprehending and boiled it down to the message, “Be a good boy.” In Hail, Caesar! (and in “Hail, Caesar”), film is a way to distill complicated theological concepts into something the common man can understand.
The Coens have often been accused of being winking nihilists and cynics, but this has always struck me as a reductive assessment. Their films do indeed ask whether existence is meaningless, but seldom do they answer in the affirmative. (The only exception in their filmography, to my mind, is the purely nihilistic Burn After Reading.) Rather, the Coens’ works – although they question humanity’s ability to understand it – often point to a higher power, a sort of cosmic justice. Their cosmos is one in which evil is pathetic and self-defeating, while goodness – though rare – is mundane, but beautiful and imperturbable. Their films have touched on religious themes in the past: A Serious Man was a theologically serious retelling of the Book of Job, while the characters of True Grit spoke of faith often and unironically. Yet Hail, Caesar! may be their most complex and profound theological work yet, as well as their warmest, sweetest, and most lighthearted.
The film opens with a shot of Christ crucified, an icon overlooking and weeping over a confessional booth in which our protagonist resides. The film’s score lists the choral track accompanying this scene as “Fiat Lux,” which translates to “Let there be light.” The sacrament is played straight: the Coens sometimes seem to have a dim view of their protagonists, but there’s nothing but sympathy for Mannix here. He is a decent man, trying to quit smoking, struggling to be good; it’s suggested that he rarely goes more than 24 hours without returning to confession. “It’s really too often,” chides the Father. “You’re not that bad.”
Just as “Hail, Caesar!” is the realization of the Christ story, Mannix, though he is not Christ himself, is striving to be the best embodiment of Christ he can be – to be the image, the realization, that people can look to for reference. As a Christ figure, he takes on the sins of the movie stars under his care, trying to help them through their problems, protect them from the consequences of their indiscretions, and keep them on the straight and narrow path. When he faces difficulties and doubts, he looks to his Father for advice. When gossip columnists seek to dredge up the old sins of his stars, he fights to prevent their public shaming, like Christ refusing to condemn the adulteress. When one star, recently indoctrinated by Communists, mocks the idea that there’s some kind of “spiritual dimension to the picture business” and argues that the studio’s motivations are solely financial, Mannix slaps him around like Christ cleaning the moneylenders out of the temple.
That star is Baird Whitlock, the latest Clooney-as-buffoon character in the Coens’ filmography. Whitlock is like one of the bumbling disciples under Mannix, an incontinent, dimwitted, but generally well-meaning man who finds himself seduced away from the faith by the aforementioned Communists, who, like Pharisees, proclaim that they have uncovered the rigid rules that govern the universe: an endeavor always doomed to fail in Coen films. (Compare this to Uncle Arthur’s Mentaculus in A Serious Man.) They are false wise men: in one scene, they travel into the west to find a red star rising out of the ocean like a beacon.
Whitlock is juxtaposed against Hobie Doyle (scene-stealing relative newcomer Alden Ehrenreich), a “rodeo clown” whose studio-mandated transition from cowboy stuntman extraordinaire to star of serious dramas is a source of great tribulation for director Laurence Laurentz (played with preternatural snobbiness by Ralph Fiennes, again demonstrating his comedic chops). Doyle is a doofus, but an endearingly good-natured one, and the Coens seem to present him as the ideal disciple. He is happy to obey the commands of his bosses, trying admirably – albeit cluelessly – to please Laurentz and demonstrating genuine concern upon hearing of Whitlock’s abduction. Doyle is the latest in the Coens’ long line of holy fools, and in the end, it is he who brings Whitlock back to the studio to be admonished by Mannix.
Ultimately, the film’s navigation of the complicated tug-of-war between art and commerce yields few clear results. The dichotomy between capitalism and communism is fraught with conflations and contradictions. When Whitlock raves about how the Communists showed him the wisdom of “Kapital, with a K,” the listening Mannix sits in front of the logo for Capitol Pictures. The narrator (Michael Gambon) compares the studio to a great piece of machinery, churning out new films for the public – painting a word picture that brings to mind 1950s America’s collective idea of what Commie propaganda looks like. Initially, it may seem that Capitol Pictures is a stand-in for the kingdom of heaven, but it is also a stand-in for Rome. While the film bears out the idea that there is indeed a spiritual dimension to the picture business – a scene where Hobie attends a premiere is as warm as Sullivan’s Travels in its validation of what cinema can offer – it is also, inescapably, an industry, a tool of commerce even as those within it try their best to create art. Would that it were so simple, indeed.
In the end, though, Hail, Caesar! suggests that, as imperfect as the system and the people within it may be, film and belief can offer something transcendently beautiful. The dueling gossip columnists played by Tilda Swinton chide Mannix that people want the facts. Mannix retorts that they want to believe. Later, he rebukes Whitlock: “You’re gonna give that speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you’re gonna believe every word you say… You’re gonna do it because the picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture, and you’re never gonna forget that again.” Hail, Caesar! is not clear on whether or not the picture, or faith itself, are empirically true. But they are clear that they mean something. They offer something beautiful, something beyond what pure facts can give. At the same time, the Coens are clear that faith is not easy. Whitlock returns to the set of “Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ” and gives his rousing speech at the foot of the cross – the speech an executive earlier identified as the emotional climax of the whole picture. (As with most things in Hail, Caesar!, what is said about the film-within-the-film applies to the film proper.) It’s a beautiful moment, as everyone on the set seems to be disarmed, emotional, drawn, if only for a few moments, to belief – and then Whitlock flubs the end of the speech, forgetting the crucial word: “Faith.” It’s a clear-eyed picture of human weakness, not dismissing faith but acknowledging that those who practice it are imperfect beings.
In the film’s last scenes, Mannix – who has been plagued throughout the film by a Lockheed executive’s attempts to woo him over to a more “serious” field of work – confesses to his Father that his job is hard, but it feels right. “God wants us to do what’s right, my son,” the Father tells Mannix. “I got it, Father,” Mannix says as he jumps up and races back to work. Hail, Caesar! ends with Mannix back on the studio lot, at the start of a new day. “Stories begin and stories end,” intones the narrator, “But Eddie Mannix’s story will never end… it is written in light everlasting.” Like Inside Llewyn Davis, it’s an ending that hinges on acceptance of the cyclical, difficult nature of life. Yet here, that acceptance is far more hopeful. Eddie Mannix’s job may be a hard one, but it is one worth doing, because it lets others see Christ through him. And as the camera pans up to the light of the sun, perhaps the audience, too, has seen – through this seemingly frivolous story about a bunch of movie stars in 1950s Hollywood – just a tiny glimpse of light everlasting.