*God is nigh in the new Coen Brothers’ film, ‘Hail Caesar!’.
From the opening moment when the main character, Mannix (Josh Brolin), is seen in the confessional at 4am, until the film’s end when we see him stride confidently in his purpose as head of operations of a large Los Angeles movie studio, we are gifted with the inside scoop on how God works.
What better venue to teach us about faith and God than a 1960’s Hollywood studio? The themes of adultery, kidnapping, extortion, forbidden homosexuality, McCarthyism, Communism, bribery, and graft run freely as we watch the studio in production of a film about the life of Christ.
We are at first amused with the opening scene of a man in the confessional asking forgiveness for having smoked a couple of cigarettes outside of his promise to his wife that he will quit. It seems petty and small. Although he desires absolution from the sin of lying, this montage sets up a notion that he is led by the nose of guilt and sin to confess, and not by any great intellect.
As the film progresses though, we learn more about Mannix. Several films are being shot simultaneously in various sets and locations. His job is to oversee and trouble shoot them all, and to keep the studio schedules and bottom line on track. He has his hands full: the star of the studio’s blockbuster, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) has been kidnapped from the set; the Esther Williams knockoff (Scarlett Johansson) is single and now pregnant; the cow-brained heart throb Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich) of their latest Western can’t act unless he is sitting on a horse or twirling a rope; the Gene Kelley-style hoofer, Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) is about to be outed by the gossip journals for having had gay sex with one of the studio’s star directors; and Mannix is being courted by the aerospace industry to sign on with them to head their nuclear weapons program for a guarantee of lifetime income. Meanwhile his wife phones to ask him to negotiate a better spot for their son on the Little League team.
At first it is all goofy and a bit reminiscent of ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum’.
On set, Baird is drugged and then hauled off unconscious to a hideout in Malibu. After awaking in a chaise lounge still dressed in his Roman togs, the maid shows him into a room full of nerds eating cucumber sandwiches—otherwise known as Communists. He becomes intrigued, is swayed by their passion to have the Caesars of the world give all back unto the workers, whilst being photographed by his new comrades with the unspoken purpose of blackmailing the studio for a ransom.
Meanwhile, back at the studio, in desperation, Hobie becomes the fill in for a swishy high society film to replace the Clark Gable type who did not show. He looks the part in his tux, but with his cow pie vocabulary can’t please the director.
In order to make the Christ film sell, Mannix brings in clergy from Christianity and Judaism for their feedback and approval. As they sit politely around the table, the clergy begin with criticism of some technical aspects of the film. Mannix redirects them back toward giving their theological considerations. At first gracious and polite, the men of faith quickly evolve into a theological wrestling match about who is God, who is Jesus, and which of these can star in a movie. We observe that the only one in the room with any faith at all is Mannix; he presses them to attest that the film at least is not offensive.
Back in his office, a troubled Hobie walks in just as Mannix is trying to close the briefcase with the $100,000 ransom money for Baird.
Enter God, stage left.
Mannix then begins to perform his real work through inspired decision-making. He sees the gift of natural simplicity in the cowhand and in an act of inspired faith confides with him about the kidnapping and ransom. Hobie’s natural simplicity and goodness allow him to help out just as willingly any good and honest western cowpoke would.
I was fascinated by the Hollywood Communist subplot. Growing up as a child of the 1950’s-‘70’s, I knew that Hollywood blacklisted wonderful talent because of its fear that Communism would take over America through occupying its media, particularly films. Ghastly apparitions of these Communists were made bigger than life: scary, smart, intellectuals and geniuses from the Soviet Union. What we see in this film is a living room in a luxury hideaway filled with ectomorphs and endomorphs eating crust-less cucumber sandwiches, espousing ideas they barely understand, and arguing with each other about them. They call upon their sage Professor Marcuse (John Bluthal), a thinly disguised avatar of Herbert Marcuse, who espouses in oblique terms about alienation from an increasingly totalitarian universe that trumpets its freedom at every moment.
The whole notion of a Communist takeover, dubious as it was during the height of the McCarthy flare up, is now turned on its head and portrayed as nothing more than a living room full of cranks. The final blow to any notion that the ideologies of these living room Communists had any social integrity comes when these intrepid Marxists row a dingy to rendezvous a Russian submarine. They beg Gurney, who leaps Hollywood-style from the dingy to board the sub, to take the ransom money from them, the lowly Workers, and give it to ‘The Cause’. So much for dispersing Wealth amongst the Workers of the World. Gurney takes his pet pooch instead, and the valise of money hurled toward him falls to the bottom of the sea. So much for The Cause.
The Coens have also hurled our beliefs in God, our religious institutions, Clergy, ideologies, and popular heroes down the drink…
But we are not left adrift for long:
The Coens bring us back to Mannix, once again in the confessional, same reason. But now, we understand his need for prayer. He is not a man draped in dogma, far from it. He deals with the fallout from religious dogma all day: protecting his gay director, his unmarried pregnant star; seeking ecclesiastic approval for the blockbuster film.
He is also wrestling what his own purpose is. Does he continue with this pivotal role in protecting Americans from their idols, despite his long overtime hours and mediocre pay? does he take the offer from the aerospace industry and gain monetary security while enabling the birth of the atomic bomb?
We watch him in fervent prayer. He then returns to the confessional to be forgiven about the cigarette lie again. This time though, he has a question for the confessor: what is one’s purpose in life, to do what brings security, or to do what feels right? the answer he is given is of course to do what is right. How will he know when that is?
we can feel when we are doing right, and when we do what feels right to us, we are doing God’s work.
When Mannix returns to work the next morning, he is light as a colt. He strides along the studio as his secretary follows him with the morning list of tasks. Each of the insurmountable problems of the day before is resolved: the pregnant star marries the stooge who was hired to temporarily adopt her child so she could then legitimately adopt it; the cowboy says his lines perfectly, because the director has made the words simpler; Mannix instructs his secretary to tell the aerospace rep No Thank You; the gossip columnist who had threatened to expose the homosexual liaisons of their star is told her witness to the scandal is a known Communist. Everything is in its place.
The penultimate piece is Mannix grabbing a loose-minded Baird by the scruff and telling him that as the star, his only job is to convince everyone in the audience that the actor on the cross is Christ, and nothing less.
We are cut to a marvelous scene: the Roman Clooney at the foot of the cross of the Jewish thief. And with a beatific countenance he expounds to the Roman beside him on the majesty of the teacher before them, and of his teachings about a new way for humanity. The Coens’ cameras are panning the set: handlers, script boys, costumers; all are awash in the glory of Clooney’s words. That is…until he stumbles for the last word of the script. We all fall off Mount Calvary and are back in Hollywood.
What was that last word? His co-star prompts him; “Faith“.
Oh well, in Hollywood there’s always time for one more take.
- A version of this article is also available in PlainViews March 16, 2016 Volume 13 No. 3, for professional Chaplains.