On my first viewing of Hail, Caesar!, I didn’t get it. The plot is full of tangents, the humor rarely hi, and I wasn’t sure what to think of the end. However, I found myself wanting to revisit it because I tend to love the Coen Bros. films and most of my friends were raving about it. I’m glad I did because this film is an absolute delight.
Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a fixer in 1950s Hollywood. Every dirty secret, every messy scandal is handled under his care at a breakneck pace. Every day is an onslaught of problem actors and scandals just waiting to burst out into the open. The latest involves the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) by a group of communist screenwriters. Baird is the star of a film about the Christ story from the perspective of a centurion.
Therefore, it is no surprise that the film is deeply religious. The opening scene is Eddie confessing his sins to a priest, sins the priest finds rather pedantic and inconsequential, but sins that weigh heavy on the heart of Eddie, sins for which he seeks penance.
And his job is an attempt to redeem the studio, or at least give it the appearance of redemption. He rescues waylaid stars, looks to resolve infidelities and children out of wedlock, and meet the demands of the kidnappers. He’s the studio’s own Christ figure, constantly dying to self and seeking to redeem the fallen sinners of the studio.
And yet, he’s simply a figure. A powerful moment in the film happens during a viewing of the dailies of the titular Hail, Caesar! One shot shows the story of Saul encountering God, but when it is to reveal God’s glory instead there is a black screen that says divine presence to be shot. It’s the missing element, the unseen and uncapturable force for which the characters long, but never quite see.
Baird Whitlock tries to find his own redemption in the communist cause. The screenwriters hold that films are inherently capitalist and oppress the working class. They attempt to subvert this through the introduction of communist ideas into films. It seems these communist have read Comolli and Narboni’s famous “Cinema/Ideology/Criticism” article on how to subvert the capitalist film industry.
But Baird holds to a different standard. He consults with religious leaders about their depiction of Christ in the hopes to prove films are not frivolous, that films have meaning. If you serve the picture, it has worth. Films can inspire, they can elevate, they can point us to the divine, they can give us meaning. Films are a worthy endeavor.
And such a film leaves the audience in quite a predicament. After all, that divine presence is yet to be shot. We’re still a bunch of wretched, lowly sinners in need of men like Baird to put things right. But even Baird is in need of a savior. If we had but… If we had but…
© 2016 James Blake Ewing