This film has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA. Click here for the parental advisory from IMDb.com.
(This review contains spoilers)
Joel and Ethan Coen, the directors of such quirky and acclaimed films as O Brother, Where Art Thou?, True Grit, and No Country for Old Men, released another film last year, this time to relatively little fanfare. I first saw Hail, Caesar! shortly after it came to DVD, and ever since, I’ve been looking, unsuccessfully, for some thoughtful Christian commentary on the film. Beneath all the surface fun—the oddball comedy, the affectionate jabs at Golden Age Hollywood, Tilda Swinton’s outrageous hats—the film seemed to be trying to communicate something serious and profound.
The Theological Element of the Chariot Race
One hint crops up a few minutes into the picture, in a scene where film producer Eddie Mannix meets with four religious leaders to discuss Capitol Pictures’ big upcoming film, a biblical epic in the vein of Ben Hur. Having explained that the film will embody, or realize, the tale of the Christ in a way that will powerfully affect millions of people, Mannix wants to know “if the theological elements are up to snuff.”
To which the Eastern orthodox bishop responds, “I thought the chariot scene was fakey. How is he going to jump from one chariot to the other going full speed?”
It’s a good laugh in a comedy filled with them, but the exchange points strongly toward the film’s overriding concern with incarnational faith and the sanctity of everyday work. If it’s a good thing to make pictures at all, if it’s a sacred work to embody stories and ideas in fiction, then even a chariot race is a theological element, and the question of how to film it becomes a question with real worldview consequence.
If it’s a sacred work to embody ideas in fiction, even a chariot race is a theological element.—@suzannahtweets
Just as in this scene, questions of work, faith, and calling crop up throughout the whole picture.
It’s there in the central plot. Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is standing at a career crossroads. His job as Head of Physical Production requires him to spend his life nursemaiding a gaggle of immature and vice-ridden celebrities, and he’s seriously considering accepting a job offer from an aviation company on the cutting edge of atomic science. Meanwhile, the Hail, Caesar! production is thrown into chaos when its star is kidnapped and held to ransom, and it’s Mannix’s job to get him back safely, all while keeping scandal out of the tabloids and juggling half a dozen other small crises.
Mannix doesn’t particularly enjoy his job, but he sticks with it because he understands how much the studio and the actors need him. At the climax of the film, after praying all night, Mannix goes to confession and puts his dilemma before the priest. Should he choose the easy job, or should he stay with what his conscience tells him is the right job?
“God wants us to do what’s right,” the priest says in gentle exasperation.
It sounds like a platitude, but the picture doesn’t want us to brush this aside. Instead, it actively encourages us to think of Mannix as a type of Christ, a mediator of God’s love to the people he works with. The point is made by the previous scene, as Hail, Caesar!’s missing star, his own conflicts resolved, returns to the set to deliver his character’s speech at the foot of the Cross:
This man was giving water to all. He saw no Roman, he saw no slave. He saw only men, weak men, and gave succor. He saw suffering which he sought to ease. He saw sin, and gave love. ...He saw my own sin, Gracchus, and greed.
...This Hebrew is the son of the one God, the God of this far-flung tribe. And why shouldn’t God’s anointed appear here, among these strange people, to shoulder their sins? Here, Gracchus, in this sun-drenched land? Why should he not take this form, the form of an ordinary man?
“These strange people” is a mightily apt description of the film’s cast of characters, and the wording of the speech, as well as visual clues, prompt us to apply the speech to the story we’re seeing. Not only is Mannix a type of Christ, but his work is a type of ministry every bit as sacred and sacrificial as Christ’s own.
Mannix isn’t a perfect Christ figure, for sure. At confession, he confesses to having struck a film star in anger. He jovially asks the religious leaders at the meeting at the beginning of the film, “Isn’t there a little bit of God in all of us?” And his ministry to the “strange people” under his charge involves glossing over and hushing up their sins far more often than it involves calling them to repentance or standing for the truth.
The Privilege of Work
But while these are all things to be critical of, the point of the whole film is not about validating the protagonist’s every action. Rather, the point is to call attention to his Christlike love and sacrifice for these unattractive oddballs. And what resolves Mannix’s personal dilemma is the realization that his job is more than personal satisfaction, and more than livelihood. It’s a ministry to a needy world.
Eddie Mannix finds a character foil in Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the kidnapped star of Hail, Caesar!. Behind Whitlock’s charisma and Roman regalia is an air-headed manchild addicted to personal gratification. When Baird is kidnapped and held to ransom by a secret Communist cell working within Hollywood, they convince him that he’s being exploited by the studio and its executives. “Who benefits?” is their slogan, and Whitlock falls easy prey to a temptation identified in his climactic speech specifically as greed. If work is meant to be a sacred ministry, then it’s everyone’s privilege to work not for personal benefit but primarily for the benefit of others.
When Whitlock returns to Mannix’s office to blaspheme the unseen head of Capitol Pictures, Mr Skank (the God the Father to Mannix’s Christ?), Mannix snaps: “Now listen up, buster. Nick Skank and this studio have been good to you and to everyone else who works here. ...The picture has worth and you have worth if you serve the picture and you’re never going to forget that again.” Just as Mr Skank benefits Whitlock by providing him with a job, to say nothing of an Eddie Mannix to keep his life together, so it’s Whitlock’s privilege to benefit film-goers by helping to embody a story of truth that he himself barely understands.
Minor characters also help flesh out the theme of greed versus sacrificial ministry work. Most notable is subplot character DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a starlet who who after two failed marriages and an affair elopes suddenly with the first single man she can find with a reputation for reliability in his job. There’s Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich, in a wonderful performance) as a rodeo cowboy whose job experience in the real world has made him not only a bankable film star but also a shrewd ally for Mannix (and the Holy Ghost in the film’s trinity?).
It was one of the greatest achievements of the Reformation to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and the sanctity of ordinary work. In this sense, despite the evident theological flaws in the story, despite the Jewish directors and the Roman Catholic protagonist, Hail, Caesar!, with its emphasis on the priestly nature of common work, might just be the most deeply Protestant film I’ve ever seen.