How does “Hail, Caesar!” use Christian theology and imagery?


Early on in the Coen Brothers comedy Hail, Caesar! (2016), a priest, a protestant minister, an orthodox patriarch and a rabbi discuss the theological soundness of Hail, Caesar! Of course, these authorities of the divine are not engaged in a meta-discourse about the movie they currently feature in. Instead they discuss the intra-fictional Ben Hur-esque bible epic movie-within-the-movie, also titled “Hail, Caesar!” However, the epic’s complete title reads: Hail, Caesar! A Tale of the Christ.

Analyzing the Coen Brothers’ (cheeky) use of Catholic tropes like guilt, sin and grace amounts to asking to what extent the extra-fictional Hail, Caesar! is also “a tale of the Christ?” To answer this question we must look at the hero of this 1950’s set comedy: Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix.

Mannix (Josh Brolin) works in a not-exactly-defined function - he seems to be a producer as well as public relations man - for the Hollywood studio Capitol Pictures. He’s a devout Catholic whose strong sense of guilt far exceeds his confessed sins (lying to his wife about having quit smoking, bumming cigarettes now and then). However, there are several moments of dubious action from Mannix that don’t make it into the confession box, slapping a woman and covering up various sex scandals most prominently. While this may seem hypocritical, Mannix serves the studio with such an undoubting loyalty and fervor that nothing that he does for the studio’s sake can be wrong. He doesn’t conceive of these actions as sins. The Coens find great humor in Mannix’s bad conscience and the disparity between the silly reasons he offers the priest and all the nefarious activities that are part of his day-to-day job.

Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! (2016)

As played by Brolin, he is a good family man right out of a square 1950s movie - which also might explain why he doesn’t find fault with slapping a woman - and a pro when it comes to ensuring that Capitol Pictures keeps on churning out successful movie after movie. Making the latter task considerably more difficult is the scandalous behavior of the studio’s roster of stars as well the impossible demands of his boss, mogul Nick Schenk.

The Coens have already dabbled in transfixing a biblical hero into the 20th century. Their tragicomedy A Serious Man (2009) found a modern-day Job troubled by one calamity after another, desperately trying to find meaning in his plight.

Our “Christ,” Eddie Mannix, has no such troubles. His belief system is firm and hermetically sealed against doubts - as it well behooves a career man in the 1950s. It is rather the weight of his mission that troubles him. Hail, Caesar! chronicles this moment of doubt when the burden of his work seems too much to carry – his forty days in the Judean Desert, if you will, wrestling with temptation.

Mannix’s temptation consists of an extremely generous offer by an airplane company. This company tries to lure him to the “real world,” as head hunter Cudday explains, away from the movie “circus.” To illustrate the important role the company plays in the “real” world, he shows Mannix a photo of a recent atomic bomb test in the Pacific in which the company participated in some secret capacity. “Armageddon,” says a shocked Mannix.

In the already mentioned movie conference, it is the Catholic priest who defines the essential features of the Christ: “Christ is most properly referred to as the Son of God. It is the son of God who takes the sins of the world upon himself so that the rest of God’s children, we imperfect beings, through faith, may enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Scarlett Johansson and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! (2016)

An essential part of Mannix’s job could be described as taking the sins of Hollywood stars upon himself - and covering them up. While this may sound like a rather nefarious activity, there is not a hint of cynicism in how Mannix operates. His motivation is benign: he knows that mankind has an essential need to believe in something. And Hollywood, the Dream Factory, fulfills this need. When threatened by gossip columnist Thora Thacker with the release of extremely damaging material concerning one of the studio’s biggest stars, Mannix answers, “People don’t want the facts, they want to believe. That’s our great industry […].”

Hail, Caesar!’s delightful film-in-film sequences on the one hand show how movies in all their corniness and falsity manage to quench this essential human thirst. Sure, it’s only make-believe. But if Armageddon lurks in the “real world,” isn’t make-believe the preferred option? On the other hand they also undermine Mannix’s claim by being parodies of generic Hollywood genre storytelling. “Another movie, another potion of balm for the ache of toiling mankind,” the whimsical narrator of Hail, Caesar! announces before we view a scene of an intra-fictional western in which Cowboy star Hobie Doyle croons about the “lazy old moon.”

One of the main storylines of the movie deals with Mannix’s quest to find out who abducted Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of the intra-fictional Hail, Caesar! The latter was abducted by a group of screenwriters who, disillusioned by Hollywood, found a new belief they can whole-heartedly get behind: communism. Over the course of his abduction, the slightly dim Whitlock becomes an enthusiastic acolyte. So much so, that upon his release he is ready to explain Mannix the “actual” function of Capitol Pictures to Mannix: “[…] the studio is actually nothing more than an instrument of capitalism. […] The studio makes pictures to serve the system, that’s its function in serving the system, that’s really what we’re all up to, here. […] I mean we might tell ourselves that we’re “creating” something of artistic value, that there is some kinda spiritual dimension to the picture business, but what it is, is this fat cat Nick Schenk out in New York running a factory that makes these lollypops […]”

George Clooney and Josh Brolin in Hail, Caesar! (2016)

He isn’t able to finish his critique of capitalist Hollywood because Mannix is already on his feet, forcefully instilling his gospel into Mannix: “You’re going to go out there and going to finish Hail, Caesar! You’re going to give the speech at the feet of the penitent thief and you’re going to belief every word you say. You’re going to do it because you’re an actor and that’s what you do. […] You’re going to do it because the picture has worth and you have worth if you’re going to serve the picture and you’re never going to forget that again.”

Mannix believes in the spiritual value of every facet of moviemaking. It is “the movie” that confers value on each person who participated in its creation. It is important to note that Mannix does not mention any other possible source of value, outside of the movie business - and why would he, as movies serve as “balm for the ache of toiling mankind”? Even if his work is “so hard,” as he tells his priest in the confessional, it has worth. His movie stars may lose faith, but he won’t. His boss (whom we never see - might that be because it is strictly forbidden to show the “Godhead” on film, as the Rabbi in the theological discussion warns?) may give him unfathomable orders, and Mannix may doubt these orders, if only for a second. But he will implement them and he will punish sacrilege (preferably with slaps).

When Mannix wanders through the colossal set of the intra-fictional Hail, Caesar!, contemplating the offer of the headhunter and the disappearance of Whitlock, the borders of the intra-fictional and fictional are blurred as Mannix becomes the hero of his own bible epic. The scene ends with Mannix standing before the empty (fake) crosses that will carry the fictional Jesus and the two thieves. All that is missing is the “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?”

It takes a black sheep fallen from grace to recall him to his mission. And said black sheep, Whitlock, does indeed finish Hail, Caesar!, delivering the all-important speech at the feet of the penitent thief as if he meant every word of it. To underline this, the Coens cut to crew members, profoundly moved by Whitlock’s acting. These cuts also, again, blur the fictional boundaries between the two Caesars.

Whitlock recites, “Who would have thought that God’s anointed would appear here, among these strange people. Who […] would look to find divinity in this strange land. And yet, here it is. Teaching not the faith of Rome […]. But a higher faith. […] In the world beyond Rome, the world beyond this world. That is the tale this man tells, […] not like the old tales. A tale told in the light of life everlasting […]” Is Whitlock, playing a Roman general, talking about Mannix? What stranger land is there but Hollywood? And what is the truth that Mannix teaches? What are movies but tales told in light?

At the end of Hail Caesar!, Mannix’s resolve is restored; he is back from his forty days in the desert, having withstood temptation, back whole-heartedly providing balm to the ache of mankind. But the Coens never let us forget about the dubious nature of this remedy: Hollywood is a machine, an industry, and it supposedly earns the loyalty of it’s employees by “taking good care of them,” as Mannix and Whitlock explain at two different points of the movie, the latter, of course, before his conversion to Communism. Hollywood produces dreams, clichéd, silly and wonderful. But do these dreams actually hold “spiritual value?” There is a scene in which the actor playing Jesus in the intra-fictional Hail, Caesar! is asked if he’s a principal or an extra. He opts for principal but the assistant director doesn’t seem so sure. And neither should we when it comes to Hail, Caesar! The title of the movie after all (the movie-within-a-movie as well as the Coens’ creation) is Hail, Caesar! and not “Jesus of Nazareth.” Jesus is just a tiny part of a picture whose worth isn’t derived from Jesus and his message but from its own intrinsic value.

Hail, Caesar! (2016)

In the movie’s last scene, the camera pans up, past a water container in the midst of studio buildings with the word “behold” written on it. The shot ends on the sun, covered by a cloud, sending down golden beams. The narrator speaks of the “truth everlasting.”

Welcome to the Kingdom of Heaven… of sorts.

In this ending, Hail, Caesar! points to itself as a sort of tragicomic meta-bible epic. Of course, it is not a movie telling the tale of the Christ. It is a movie telling the tale of a Christ-like figure trying to guarantee that a movie - corny, silly, profound? - “about” the Christ gets made. Why? Because it has value.

But the fact that Hail, Caesar! parodies the source of value that its protagonist promotes is what creates an intractable tension. How can we accept this “truth made of light” although we know that it’s a lie? How can this balm help our ache if we know it’s mere placebo? If you were as delighted and moved by Hail, Caesar! as I, you know the answer.