The eighteenth of nineteen reflections on the Coen Brothers’ filmography and the season of Lent. [View Series]
by guest writer Mitch Wiley
Hail, Caesar!, a 2016 comedic riff on Hollywood’s Golden Age, may not seem the most suitable
Lenten viewing in the Coens’ filmography as its arguably one of their breeziest films to date.
Despite such levity, the film opens with a statue of a crucified Jesus hanging on a cross. We
quickly move to a Catholic confessional where studio fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin)
confesses to a priest his seemingly mundane sins at 5am. This begins the film’s plot—a day in
the life of Mannix, the fictional godlike ruler and sustainer of Capitol Pictures’ movie stars. He
spends his day moving between various film productions, putting out potential fires in the press,
and guiding the directors and actors through pickles both small (a Western cowboy unable to
properly deliver his lines) and large (the star of the prestige picture Hail, Caesar! being
kidnapped and brainwashed by Communists).
Not unlike the titular writer of 1991’s Barton Fink, Mannix is a Capital Picture employee experiencing inner turmoil and crisis. He wants to live a life as both an honest, upright husband and protective “fixer” to his studio. CapitolPictures is likely not much different from the real Hollywood studios of the 1940s and 50s, comprised of flawed stars and filmmakers. What lurks underneath this McCarty-era Hollywood sheen is the threat of Communism, ideological shift, and quite literally “the future.” It is the secret Communist club of Hollywood writers known as “The Future” that kidnap star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from the prestigious biblical epic. Whitlock plays a Roman centurion converted by the glory of the crucified Christ. The Coens capture an era of uncertainty, doubt, tension, and success with slice-of-life charm and humor. However, no era of history—Hollywood or otherwise—is without is downsides.
Motifs present throughout the Coen canon include the fight for artistic integrity and the love of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Both are present in Hail, Caesar! as Mannix and Whitlock face inner turmoil between their ideology, their desires to be righteous, and their duty to perform their job for their employers. In their climactic showdown, Mannix tells Whitlock,
You’re gonna do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do. Just like the director does what he does, and the writer and the script girl and the guy who claps the slate. 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.
Mannix sees himself, the directors, and the actors as cogs in the machine to serve the greater good of something valuable—in this case, a film. Here perhaps the Coens’ meta-question is, “Does Hollywood have worth?” Is mindless entertainment churned out by the studio system something worth living for? Is what they are doing in making the 2016 film Hail, Caesar! as Joel and Ethan Coen something worth doing?
The Lenten season is a time to ponder tension, doubts, and questions. Mannix, Whitlock, and the
Coens all feel the longings to do something of value and be righteous in an imperfect studio and
world. A throwaway joke at the beginning of the film is the temporary card reading “Divine
Presence To Be Shot” in the production footage of Hail, Caesar! Where God should be, God is
not. (Yet.) Where is God in our inner turmoil? Sometimes, that comes later rather than sooner.
Would that it were so simple.