Hail, Caesar! follows Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a Fixer for Capitol pictures who tries to keep faith in the movie business for 48 chaotic hours in Hollywoodland.
Visually, the film is fantastic. Mannix moves between two worlds: One is a vibrant 50’s movieland, and the other is the real world, marked by muted tones and noir shadows—though, to be honest, both are equally surreal. While Hail, Caesar isn’t much for pacing, the Coen Brothers do create a sense of chaos from the beginning, bombarding Mannix with problem after problem. Chief among them is the kidnapping of Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) from their prestige picture, also called Hail, Caesar, which is about a Roman Senator who witnesses Christ’s later life and eventual crucifixion.
This is one of those films where the movie within the movie parallels the “reality” of the characters. In this case, Mannix (Brolin) is the “Christ Figure.” The chaotic studio is his cross to bare; if her were to shake the studio off of his stalky shoulders the whole damn circus of artists would crumble at his feet. To be clear, Hail Ceasar is not about Religion. It parodies institutionalized Religion early in the film with a vaudevillian argument about the nature of “God” between Priest, a Padre, a Rabbi and, well you get the point.
Like any Christ Figure, he suffers for the vices of the other; preventing pornography scandals, homosexual rumours, and even arranging false adoption papers in order that an actress maintain her image. The split between the Actors screen image and real persona also adds to the chaos of the film. Baird Whitlock (Clooney) is considered a dramatic genius by the public, but he’s more of an idiot. DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson) is sold as an innocent darling, but she’s more of a dirty dame. And, Burt’s (Channing Tatum) screen image is that of an All American, but—spoilers—he’s a commie traitor. The only man who’s the same on screen and off is Hobie, the cowboy.
It’s later discovered that Burt, along with a group of communist writers—modelled after the Hollywood Ten—have kidnapped Whitlock. But the communists aren’t the antagonists, they’re just another thing that Mannix has to deal with. The Coen Brothers’ treatment of the communists subverts any sense of seriousness to their case. They have a dog named Engels, they read Soviet Life Magazine, and they have trouble working together to complete a mostly monochromatic puzzle. They go to outlandish lengths for their cause, using a row boat to meet up with a Russian submarine in the middle of a bay—the scene is made all the more surreal when one realizes it’s a soundstage. And, when Burt (Tatum) drops a ‘grip’ packed with 100,000 cash into the ocean by accident, even the most ardent Marxists in the boat morn the loss of the almighty dollar.
Really, the only person who has no trouble giving up the grip is Mannix, because he’s the only true believer amongst them. I’m not talking about his politics, or Christian faith either. I’m talking about his other belief—the one that he’s losing—his faith in movies. He’s tempted twice to leave the picture business by a devilish Avionics rep who has the poor taste to boast about the H-bomb in an oriental restaurant. Twice Mannix turns the rep down. In his darkest hour, he looks up at the empty crucifixion set, the centre cross in particular, possibly regretting that decision, because he’ll be crucified by the studio heads if Whitlock is not on set the next day to deliver his monologue on “Having Faith.”
This, to me, is the heart of the Hail, Caesar: The prestige picture about Christ’s Crusifixion mirrors Mannix’s struggle to keep the faith in the picture business, despite the weight that it bares on his shoulders. Furthermore, his narrative is given an ethereal treatment from start to finish, complete with a God-like omniscient and omnipresent narrator.
So, if Mannix is the Christ Figure, then who is the Roman Senator that’s present at the crucifixion? Well, s’far as I can tell, it’s the Audience. We bare witness to Mannix’s struggle. Afterall, the last thing the audience is entreated to before the camera rises up to the sky, is the word Behold, which is to say, Observe.