Near the beginning of the Coen Brothers’ new film, Hail, Caesar!, Josh Brolin’s character sits in a dark theater, studying the rough edit of a film still in production. The screen cuts to an actor playing the New Testament character of Saul (eventually known as Paul). As he walks the Damascus road, Saul is met by the Almighty himself. Where an image of God is to be inserted into the movie, a temporary title cuts across the film stock reading: “Divine presence to be shot.”

If the Coen Brothers’ newest comedy could be encapsulated with a single image, it would be an image that hasn’t been filmed yet. For Hail, Caesar!, with all its silliness and absurdity, is about a search for the divine. It’s about locating a presence that isn’t readily seen.

While the Coen brothers don’t land in a fixed theological position, they understand that our scrapings at the divine, our many artistic renderings, reflect something true.

Hail, Caesar! shadows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a 1950’s Hollywood “fixer” who works to keep the performers and projects at Capitol Pictures in place and in order. His job description includes late night house calls, misdirecting the press, and a willingness to slap around a movie star or two (but only if they deserve it). When one of Capitol Pictures’ prominent talents, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), is abducted and held for ransom, Mannix’s skills are thrown in the grinder. In exchange for the prized actor, the group responsible for Whitlock’s disappearance want what any good character in a Coen Brothers’ film wants: a briefcase full of cash. Fighting a deadline, Mannix only has a day or so to locate Whitlock and bring him back to set; he’s the lead in a new biblical epic that still has one prominent scene to shoot—at the feet of a crucified Jesus no less.

In their films, Ethan and Joel Coen often focus on individual symbols to visualize oblique metaphysical themes and ideas—the cat in Inside Llewyn Davis (life’s seemingly purposeless circularity), the faulty television antenna in A Serious Man (detachment from God), and Javier Bardem’s haircut in No Country for Old Men (the ugliness of depravity) to name a few. In Hail, Caesar! there are two icons; the first symbol being Mannix’s wristwatch. As an individual attuned to every grain of the day, Mannix lives by the ticking hands of his timepiece. Essentially, his job is to keep what is happening behind the scenes behind the scenes, corralling a host of characters only the Golden Age of Hollywood could yield. He sacrifices every minute of the day to serve the depravity of his employees, and for the great good of his employers.

The second prominent image—which relates directly to the first, though rather unusually—is Jesus. Hail, Caesar! opens in a Catholic church, the camera focused squarely on a crucifix. The film, after all, follows the production of a movie similarly dubbed (though with an added subtitle), Hail, Caesar! – A Tale of the Christ. Both the real and fictional Hail, Caesar! films are concerned with the same questions. Namely, what constitutes a religious experience and who ushers this experience to others?

While most of Mannix’s projects would be considered solidly B-movie productions, the Coen brothers find joy in celebrating these seemingly banal assembly line products. The world of Capitol Pictures glows with vibrancy and fervor. The lot holds the keys to the universe, whether it be in a western comedy, Broadway adaptation, mermaid synchronized swim routine, or musical. When one character argues that the industry is void of any type of “spiritual dimension,” Mannix pushes back. He sees the beauty of his time consuming work, even if many of those films and stars will be–to reference a line from the film–forgotten by 2015.

In the movie’s best scene, Mannix sits down with a number of religious figures in hopes of obtaining their theological seal of approval for the studio’s Hail, Caesar! production. The ensuing conversation, regarding the nature of the Father and Son, between a Catholic priest, Greek Orthodox Priest, Rabbi, and a Protestant minister (which already sounds like the beginning of rowdy joke) is as sidesplitting as it is tongue-in-cheek—the Coen brothers brilliantly satirizing recent discussions surrounding biblical movies like Noah and Exodus. The set piece also works as an inquiry into the nature of the film industry itself. The studio is concerned about making a movie that “will not offend anyone.” Art and product are so often easily intertwined. Can both work together?

The Coen brothers find a way to package these more cumbersome ideas into their funniest project since Raising Arizona. The cast is A+ perfect, with Alden Ehrenreich’s Hobie Doyle—a dawdling Capitol Pictures actor known mostly for silent performances in cheap Westerns—nearly stealing the show. It also helps when the individuals playing an eclectic set of Hollywood personalities are actually an eclectic set of Hollywood personalities (Scarlett Johansson, Ralph Fiennes, Jonah Hill, and Frances McDormand to name a few). The film also includes an extended Channing Tatum tap-dance scene that’s sure to put anything he did in the Magic Mike films to shame.

The film’s vibrant characters and toe-stomping routines is collaged by Roger Deakins’ near perfect photography. Old Hollywood is revived in a warm palette that evokes formula mid-twentieth century America. Herein lies a glimpse into the genius of Hail, Caesar!. With its meandering plot and nearly anti-climatic climax, the film hides behind the guise of unimportance. But just like Mannix sees the spiritual quality in his B-movie “children,” Hail, Caesar! is anything but trivial.

That quality is why it’s difficult for Mannix to leave Capitol Pictures after he’s offered a job at an engineering company, Lockheed. His recruiter lures him by arguing that movies are “all make believe.” They’re doing real work at Lockheed he says, showing Mannix a picture of an atomic bomb explosion. A good man whose only transgressions seem to be indulging in a cigarette or three, Mannix is torn. Unlike the title character in the Coen brothers’ 1991 Barton Fink—who also works for a Capitol Pictures—Mannix doesn’t just say he’s for the common man, he is committed to bring them stories they can enjoy. In one scene from Barton Fink, John Turturro’s troubled screenwriter opens a Bible in his grungy hotel room. As he flips to Genesis 1, the words morph into his own. Fink’s universe is him, and he is his universe. His idea of spiritual connection can only be found in himself and the “grandiose” text he painfully creates.

Conversely, Mannix’s burden—time—while often depicted in film as a form of slavery that slowly sucks away the life juice of its inhabitants, functions in Hail, Caesar! as something entirely different. Sure, it emphasizes Mannix’s servitude to Capitol Pictures, but that’s not necessarily a negative trait. Time, Mannix’s work, is noble and loyal because it contributes to something he believes is greater. Here, the watch takes on its true symbolism: it’s Mannix’s incarnation into the world of cinema—a medium, in his mind, that brings joy to multitudes. Or, as he says to one performer, “You have worth if you serve the picture.”

Mannix eventually finds himself praying about his employment decision at the the foot of the cross—Calvary has been recreated as a set for Whitlock’s film. Mannix searches for the spiritual in his work, though sometimes it feels like looking at a temporary title card.

When the film does offer audiences a glimpse at divine presence, it’s during a scene at the above mentioned “Golgotha.” In it, one character (I won’t say who) makes a speech that overflows with faith and emotion; his character finally realizes who Jesus is. Hearing the dialogue, the crew, as well as the audience, feels a swell of supernatural vision in their bones—until it’s bookended by the Lord’s name taken in vain.

We know that Hollywood is “make believe”—the speeches aren’t “real”—but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t give us truth every once in awhile. While the Coen brothers don’t land in a fixed theological position, they understand that our scrapings at the divine, our many artistic renderings, reflect something true. Often, like the television antenna in A Serious Man, our reception of God’s presence finds itself swallowed by static. We search for a vision, and often can’t see it. Even our Christ figures—and Hail, Caesar! has its Christ figures—are just mirrors of the true Father and Son.

Like the Coen Brothers’ filmography, Hail, Caesar! longs for this Divine presence, just if and when it believes it will be shot is another question altogether.



  1. “A good man whose only transgressions seem to be indulging in a cigarette or three…”

    Also slapping people up occasionally.

    1. The film doesn’t seem to view Mannix’s “slapping” as wrong, but necessary–though slapping someone is pretty deplorable. It seems to say something about the Mannix’s devotion that Hail, Caesar! doesn’t necessarily see this as a transgression. But yeah, we shouldn’t slap people.

  2. I had a lot of trouble with this film. I’ve actually come to a slightly opposite reaction: “Hail, Caesar!” is actually a skewering of the self-importance of movies, and the movie industry as a whole. In the film, the movie industry treats innocents like property (e.g., Hobie), actively seeks to cover up sins and obscure the truth (e.g., Mannix’s bribing police and intimidating journalists), and encourages a man (Mannix) to forgo a job that would actually allow him to be a good husband and a present father so that he can keep participating in the glitz and glamor.

    Admittedly, it’s a bit more complicated than that — for instance, Lockheed would presumably have Mannix working on military projects devoted to death, which is problematic in its own way. And Mannix exhibits some pangs of conscience re. the activities that his studio job requires him to do. He’s not a bad man, but one who is willingly misguided.

    As for the film’s religious aspects, again I think the Coens are taking a more satirical bent, i.e., that movies may strive for spiritual and religious truth and revelation, and occasionally even hit it, but such events are rare. For me, the most interesting and revealing moment in “Hail, Caesar!” is when the stagehand is asking the actors on the crosses about their meals, and comes to the (unseen) actor portraying the crucified Christ. The stagehand asks him, “Are you a principal or an extra? When the actor hesitantly replies that he thinks he’s a principal, the stagehand gets annoyed and walks off, literally leaving Christ hanging there.

    All that being said, I do hope the Coens’ next film is “Hobie Doyle: Commie Buster.”


      What’s stood out to me about Mannix’s home life is the scene where he actually goes home. Instead of a spouse who’s exhausted by his absence, Mannix’s wife is cheerful and understanding. That leads me to believe she’s not just “okay” with being an afterthought, but that her and the children aren’t really afterthoughts. Sure, they are on that day—and the hours in general are long—but Mannix must be doing something to forge this kind of reaction from her. If I remember correctly, she actually presses him to consider the Lockheed job more critically. Despite his dedication to the studio, he’s still a good dad and husband. So the Lockheed job *might* be better for their family, but it’s not make or break.

      In some ways, I think the film points a finger at the industry, but it also celebrates it. Mannix is somewhat of a Christ figure, the advocate between the studio executives (we don’t ever see their presence, but they call in) and the people. Essentially, he bears the brunt of the performers’ sin to meet the demands of his boss. The ethics of this are hazy, but the point is still there. Plus, they have fun with all types of films. Each “cutaway” to another film is filled with joy and passion.

      The religious elements are part satirical, but at the same time the Coens do acknowledge some form of piety. And despite the crew not knowing whether the character of Jesus (in a film about Jesus) is an extra or not, and Clooney’s batched speech, they still seem to understand that movies can tap into something “divine.” Like I mentioned, they don’t really come down on a theological side, they might not even acknowledge God, but they do touch on spiritual remnants.

      And I agree, we need more Hobie.

  3. i like the way you set your eyes in your film as i liked Jason’ too. I find in both of your views a great connection to what my feel was…with JAson i would like to add a couple of things more to tha satirical tone he saw in the religous themes. first of all there is a clear distinctions between two romes and two “religions” (that are the answers to the brutality of each epoch). There is the rome of the 1950’s and its anti-rome(same coin) answer ,communism…that only cares for money , grande creations of The New Human (without a new truth) and the only way this idea can come to true is by money to give jy to the moma sovieta and its submarines babys and there is no morale in the end only dialectical confrotations and the act of reason .To acquire this money, you have to make whatever you have to do to take 100.000 dollars in one day.That’s the solution.They are all wealthy but they want what they deserve..And even if it sound reasonable(and in a roman way , it is) it is something that our inner voice(See manix confession) has told us (and Coens has showed us in all of the films) but the quest for the easining of your life in a self righteous path for wealth is something that is not Something that can be considered sacred or even not stupid. On the other hand in Rome, Jesus Christ with His Light and message without a single gun, without any other sigficance but based on the New Truth that His Word brought to people the Light of His kingdom, the joy and tears , the hope and meaing. that He is Love and through Love you are not condemned in a It changed everything. But this revelation can be found through faith only and not through self-prideness, And it’s the cresendo in the film, that we cant show anything more than that but only through Faith you can see this message, the word that the lead actor forgot, he said everything right but he didnt said that word, Faith. And when Clooney makes his monlogue in the final scene of the rome then, the rome in 1950, the rome of today the only thing you can do is your own personal choice. I dont know if Coens have the Faith or not.Its not a theological movie.Its somethign touched with respect.With self agony in either way.believers or not. So if someone wants to see A statement in the end,it is an honest without touch of sarcasm. A message that says without Faith is a make believe.

  4. The movie has a simple message; “Wish that it were so simple’…its ‘rather complex’….however if you view it correctly you may understand the subtle neature of exposing the ANTI-CHRISTIAN NATURE OF the Hollywood Culure.

    It is a tribute ot the producer, who is so sensitive he is going to confession, far too often. He is seen in one scene saying the Rosary.

    We have the communist plot, we have a plot for some individuals to seduce the Producer with more money, in the Nuclear Bomb industry. These message are complex, and so simple, you may not put this puzzle together…

    The trailors make you think that this is about Caesar…its about Jesus Christ and a very, very, very important message….’a truth we could see if we had but…”

    Well if you have seen this movie you will know the answer is ‘FAITH’, and so is the marketing of this MOVIE, to not ward off those who would not like a movie of JESUS CHRIST…

    The movie is complex, the characters each tell a story of ‘what you see is not what is…”

    Hail, Caesar meets Christ at the cross !

    Oh and by the way….research in Thunder Bay has exposed how truths can lie…giving added meaning to the message of Jesus Christ: The Way, The Truth, to the Truth of Truth…LIGHT; A Rainbow of Truths can lie.

    re: “The LIGHT; The Rainbow of Truths…The Jesus Christ Code”

  5. I loved this movie as I found it a cinematic exploration of truth (“My readers want the TRUTH, Eddie!” says the Hedda Hopper character.) and one man’s search for meaning and faith. It’s significant, isn’t it, that a) the Jesus character says, plaintively, “I *think* I’m a principle” when asked about his status by a lackey and 2) Even though the speech at the foot of the cross moves the attendant crew, the actor cannot remember the key word–Faith–because (I think) he hasn’t got any! I enjoyed your review very much and found many of the same interesting points during my 2 viewings–and I’ll be watching it again, I’m sure. As a fan of classic Hollywood and a believer, this was a rare treat for me!

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