When Christianity first began gaining traction and churches rose out of the cellars of secrecy, the followers of Christ encountered a problem. Few besides the rich could read, and because Christianity first rose in popularity amongst the common people, a distance between the clergy and parishioners became imminent. In order to combat this, priests instructed the windows to be made with stained glass so as to depict the saints and martyrs of the Bible with accuracy and clarity for all.
We live in a world where, rather than stained glass, film and television have taken over as the most straightforward way to send a message. Josh Brolin’s character, Eddie Mannix, makes the same point to the clergymen he meets with in order to assess his film, Hail, Caesar!‘s, religious merits. Mannix convinces disparate faiths of his and every other film’s depiction of Christ as a means to impress a tried-and-true story on the masses, a surefire win for the God-fearing leaders assembled before him.
Only it isn’t, really. The problem with rehashing an old narrative for a new audience (as pointed out before in my Hamilton review) is that those tasked with presenting said tale possess greater motives than simply “telling stories,” as Mannix puts it. Mannix himself is interested only in keeping his illustrious capitalist machine running, the Communist writers want to send coded messages buried in subtext, and Hobie Doyle just wants to do a good job. Straightforward as these reasons may seem, everyone lies to themselves in order to give the impression that they’re not as vain as they appear.
The Communists write under the delusion that they’re fighting a just fight, as opposed to being bitter about subpar compensation. Scarlett Johansson’s character says she’ll wait to marry someone worthwhile in order to cover up a pregnancy scandal, only to run off with the the first man she meets outside the studio walls. Mannix remains the only person willing to question his actions when presented with a better alternative, but shuns it because he believes the voice in his head telling him to stay with his studio is God talking, and, as the priest reminds him, “God wants us to do what’s right.”
God never gets around to sharing his opinions on slapping and manipulating one’s employees lives, though. Mannix commands reverence akin to a deity, yet he never sees himself the way others seem to. There’s an endless looping of godlike figures and ideas, swallowing themselves like snakes eating their own tails. The Communist writers and common people look up to the cast, the cast looks up to Mannix, and Mannix finds solace in…what he defines as God. He visits the priest as a means of therapy, but his faith clearly lies in other institutions: film, primarily. Capitalism. Keeping the wheel of disillusionment spinning.
When George Clooney’s character, Baird Whitlock, comes back from being abducted by the writers, he confides in Mannix that communism may have a few good points. Whitlock admits to his captors that he is, in fact, a man of the people (even though his form of sympathizing with communist values takes shape in his story relating capitalist interests serving themselves to a Hollywood actor asking Whitlock to shave his back). Whitlock identifies with the broader point about transparency in economic endeavors, and just as he’s about to point it all back to Mannix, he’s slapped for his faith being shaken in the wholesome system with which he was raised. “You have worth because the film has worth!” Mannix assures him between clutched fists.
The speech Whitlock gives to Mannix mirrors a point made early on in the film that the actor will deliver a speech at the feet of the penitent servant–only in this instance, the servant is Mannix, at the feet of the almighty Capitol. Whitlock does end up giving his oration in its intended context, but tuning one’s ear, the script gives off heavy whiffs of Communist vibes–God is meant for everyone, all men are equally deserving of His glory, etc. etc.
The short time between both speeches serves another point the film makes: the line between fact and fiction, stories and reality, doesn’t truly exist. Actors break into song and staged routines outside of their set, while the whacky adventures of Mannix et al. seem more outlandish than any of the produced works. The lies the actors and main players tell themselves bleeds into their individual lives, making it difficult to tell when someone is truly telling the truth–to themselves or otherwise.
Most importantly, however, is the notion of the insubstantiality of religion, government, and ideologies in everyday life. Christian motifs are intentionally bastardized–Scarlett Johansson’s DeAnna Moran doesn’t know the father of her child and subsequently marries a man named Joe to remain inconspicuous, Mannix stands beneath three crosses on a soundstage, and even Jesus himself is chided over whether or not he accepted a hot or cold meal. Channing Tatum’s character drops a briefcase filled with money that served as the film’s focal point into the ocean for a dog. And truly, how could anyone compare the spectacular rise of the proletariat to the wet kisses of a loyal canine companion?
Following a Coen Brothers’ movie is never an easy task. The plotlines are so varied and labyrinthine that coming up with a genuine analysis is often beside the film’s point entirely. In spite of this, I believe Hail, Caesar! is trying to question, not necessarily God’s existence, but whether the idea of his existence holds value anymore. Institutions in the film tend to run for their own sake, for amoral or selfish reasons, and few, if any, stop to truly think about their actions long enough to question their underlying motives. Christ’s story is paraded, not to enlighten, but to sell tickets. Some within the production of Hail, Caesar! clearly wish to send a message of Communism, but it’s drowned in waves of apathy, capitalism, and pseudo-American ideals meant to “maintain the status quo,” as Mannix puts it.
God has been substituted so many times for so many different factions’ messages that Christ no longer carries the same weight he once did. Stories in His likeness do not bear his resemblance, and the body politic suffers from thoughtless action, tedious enterprise, and the quiet negligence of the ever growing reality that we serve masters who serve no greater purpose.