Hail, Caesar! full movie review - Hollywood fixer finds faith in sustaining illusions
The Coens' Hail Caesar may be the most serious comedy in the theatres today. It confronts our essential dilemma: how to live a life of faith and service in the corrupt modern world. 1950s Hollywood, of course, is the essence of modernity, projected images of virtue and the fantasy of piety.
The two historic figures in this fiction embody two competing faiths. The Hollywood fixer Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a practicing Catholic. In the opening and late scenes he's at confession, seeking absolution for having lied to his wife and relapsed into smoking. Even the priest advises that his daily confession is too much. Ironically, his confessed sins ? however deeply troubling to him ? are rather trivial for a man engaged 24/7 in abetting all sorts of sins and crimes, bribing the cops, paying off kidnappers and blackmailers. Not to mention neglecting his family and principles. Mannix's religion is quite safely detached from his daily deeds. But he is ardently faithful.
The other, more marginal historic figure is Prof. Marcuse (John Bluthal), presumably Herbert Marcuse, the influential Marxist philosopher who advocates social revolution against the suppression by organized religion. Instead of rendering unto Caesar (that's the historic Caesar, not the one in the Hollywood world inhabited by the actor George Clooney plays) the things that are Caesar's, or giving them to the church, the communists would grab them to share out among the citizenry. For that they need to overthrow the religious, economic and political order. (Aside, pace G.K. Chesterton: The trouble with socialism as with Christianity is that it has never really been tried.)
Mannix's dilemma takes the form of a choice between two jobs. He can continue as the amoral and illegal Hollywood fixer or he can accept the far easier and financially more rewarding career offered by Lockheed Airlines. Mannix asks which job would better serve God's will. Flying the civilian skies or the even more secular job of protecting the Hollywood stars in the profane Hollywood galaxy. Spoiler alert: he picks the latter profane.
Mannix realizes his calling when he slaps the kidnapped star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) out of his newly injected Communism. Serving God is serving man. And vice (so to speak) versa. Mannix finds a religious fulfillment in maintaining the public's dream life and his coworkers' and bosses' successful careers. He will serve God on earth not in the Lockheed skies. The secular faith emanates from the last shot, a water tower reading "Behold" against the (unusually) clear Hollywood skies.
Two points validate Mannix's choice. His pitch from Lockheed's rep includes the promising future the company sees in the recent atomic bomb tests on Bikini Beach. So the easier job may not be cleaner after all.
And for all its tawdriness, greed and sinfulness, Hollywood is still capable of enriching its audience's spiritual lives. This we see when the crew and cast members are individually enrapt and moved to tears by the climactic speech by the converted centurion (Clooney as Whitlock). Whitlock smashes the illusion by forgetting the climactic word: "faith." But until then, his performance has created a moment in which even the most hardened observers, the people working the falseness of the set, are delivered into belief. Hollywood's illusion can be as spiritual as the religions'.
Mannix's division within himself has two parallels. Tilda Swinton plays two twin sisters, Thora and Thessaly Thacker, furiously rival gossip columnists, whose difference is masked by their posturing and garb. As Mannix is a man torn in two, the twins are two in one. They are also a secular parody of the contentious division of the Trinity.
The film itself is a division. It bears the title of the film the Clooney character is making. But frequently a scene erupts from another film, another genre, like the underwater ballet or the sailors' homoerotic dance number. Here we don't know if the scene is "life" or a film staging. The film is less the traditional "film within a film" than an exercise in cinematic delusion, a celebration of classic Hollywood fantasy. Hence the variety of popular genres, like the musical, western, romance.
We're always watching the artifice of reality here. In "real life" scenes actors do their performance pieces, like the actress with her illicit photo shoot, the cowboy star entertaining himself with his lariat act, then his date with a noodle version. Though an executive not an actor, Mannix spends his life "performing" to keep his vagrant charges' private lives on the studio script. Hence his machinations around an unwed pregnant star.
But there is also the reality of artifice, like the dramatic effect of Whitlock's performance. More deeply, the film presents Hollywood as the dream factory that sustains the ambivalent social effects of capitalism. When the Communists abduct and brainwash Whitlock their naive idealism threatens the fabric of American life. So there is virtue and social responsibility in Mannix's recovery of the vacuous star, his defence of American capitalism and his choice of serving God through Hollywood rather than through Lockheed.
This is a very timely film in two respects. First, it rebuts Trumbo, which sanitized its hero by downplaying the foolishness of the Hollywood communists whose faith ignored the shocking reality of Stalinism, the show trials, the dangerous spies. They were the blind idealists Lenin had called "useful idiots." This film presents Hollywood's Communist scriptwriters as those idiots, dazzled by their own clichés and rhetoric. When they lose the satchel with the $100,000 blackmail money their useful idiocy proves futile and absurd.
Secondly, the film's treatment of Hollywood piety is a timely corrective to the Republican campaign for the presidency. Their entire slate, especially leaders Trump and Cruz, project the fake faith and spurious piety the commercialized religion of Hollywood plays out here. They'll feel unjustly justified that the gay director proves a Commie.