I don’t intend this site to be for movie reviews, properly speaking, but I am inspired by the Coen Brothers’ latest film to share a few thoughts. There might be spoilers, so please refer to my newly-minted Spoiler Policy.
Hail, Caesar! is a fantastic romp through the early 50s Hollywood studio system, following the adventures of a fictional studio “fixer,” Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin). Mannix is charged with not only ensuring that the movies Capitol Pictures are producing come out nice and shiny, but also that the public images of the stars they employ remain as pristine as possible. And so we see him visiting soundstages, screenings, and an editing room, but also at work on squelching several potential personal scandals.
Mannix is a man of faith, specifically a Catholic, which I feel that the Coens respect in the film. The jokes which serve to puncture every serious or straightforward moment in the film never mock Mannix’s prayers. Though he is shown to be a bit inconsistent in what he considers a sin worthy of taking to confession, that seems to be more a function of human blindness than of rank hypocrisy. The Coens don’t betray their ultimate feelings toward religion, but it’s certainly not negative. It may be the sort of benevolent neutrality that equates prayer and “positive thoughts,” and likewise equates an experience of art with grace. The two things are often very close to each other, and art can be either a substitute for, or a pathway to a divine encounter.
The Coens slyly affirm the possibility of the transcendent even amongst some of the most blatantly goofy antics they have filmed. They use laughs to sublimate some really big ideas under the surface. One is that art can convey meaning beyond the ideas and the intentions of the artists. This is especially true in a collaborative medium like film, and especially within a studio system like the one being portrayed. Propagandists, empty headed actors, and morally corrupt directors can still come together and create something that rises above their agendas and personal failings to really touch people.
In the film, we encounter a cabal of communist writers who have attempted to subversively infect their film scripts with socialist propaganda. But the group’s efforts seem to have been ineffectual in planting the seeds of revolution in the masses who see the films they have written. Although they convince the buffoonish actor Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) of the “scientific” certainty of their cause, the inept manner in which they execute their plans leaves no question as to whether we should believe them too. Like much of Hail, Caesar!, there is an ambiguity in this that leaves it open to more than one interpretation. Are the Coens suggesting that 1950s fears over communism in the movie business were not only overblown, but merely laughable? If they are, they avoid the smug retrospective chronological snobbery that pervades many “serious” films like last year’s The Imitation Game. Yes, the Commies are played for laughs, but so is everyone else. And by making this clownish band the mouthpiece for “science” in this film, are the Coens making a statement in the perpetual (though misguided) battle between science and faith?
Thoughout the film, the biggest moral dilemma that Mannix has is whether to remain in his job as Hollywood fixer or to take a cushy executive position at the Lockheed Corporation. Many, or perhaps most people today wouldn’t even recognize this as a moral dilemma, but Mannix clearly see it as such. He is depicted in deep conflict over the choice, taking it to prayer and even seeking priestly advice from his confessor. The conflict is posed in an interesting way though. It is not a decision between the deceptive work of making stars and movies look glitzy for the masses and the honest hard work of building up national defense. Rather, the “frivolous” picture-making business is felt by Manix to be the more difficult path, and he chooses that over the government contracting job with the golden parachute.
I choose to see this as the Coens affirming the importance of art in our world (not a surprising or uncommon message in a movie), even art that is mostly just mass entertainment. But to go one step further, I think the way that they wove Mannix’s faith into this message deepens and transforms their exploration of this theme. In the final confessional scene, when Mannix chooses to return to Capitol pictures, he is instructed to follow the voice of his conscience. His conscience directs him back into the messy world of motion pictures, which is seen as a divine mission in the terms of the film. The last shot points the camera heavenward as the “voice of God” narration gives its final benediction, in case we missed that point. I think that the Coens are telling us that the job of the artist is to engage with the messiness of the fallen world, and all the fallibility of humanity, and to try to tell a story that transforms it into something beautiful to see. As Truffaut supposedly said, “Cinema is an improvement on life,” and that process of improvement can point to something transcendent. Yes, its an irony that cinematic artistry, as presented here, involves convincing the masses that a mess is actually something glitzy and glamorous, but isn’t that another metaphor for the transformative power of grace? A cynical viewer might say not, but I think that the joyful tone of this love letter to old Hollywood insists that the Coens are making a positive statement. Something like, “Hail, Hollywood!”