This article contains spoilers.
Hail, Caesar!, the Coen brothers’ latest film, places its audience at the centre of the Hollywood Golden Age. The action revolves around the stars and behind-the-scenes players at Capitol Pictures, where Eddie Mannix (played by Josh Brolin) is a ‘fixer’, tasked with keeping the production process rolling and the studio scandals to a minimum. His role becomes more difficult when the lead actor of Capitol’s biggest film project – a historical epic also called Hail, Caesar! – is kidnapped. Mannix is left to resolve the situation, while skilfully dealing with routine problems, from gossip columnists to perturbed directors.
Mannix’s role requires great attention to detail, and the Coens ask the same of their viewers. On the surface, the film is a fun farce, little more than a vehicle for period details and playful pastiches. As always, though, the directors hint at the presence of subtexts and symbolism. In the first scene, Mannix glances at his watch, which is shown in a pointed close-up. He checks his wrist time and time again over the course of the film, and though the hour hand changes, the minute hand never strays far from the twelve. Beyond highlighting Mannix’s punctuality, the watch becomes an unspoken metaphor for his role at Capitol – moving smoothly on a superficial level, but hiding intricate inner workings within.
Hail, Caesar! opens in a church, the camera first resting upon a crucified Christ then moving to Mannix as he sits in the confessional. The penultimate scene, which takes place precisely 27 hours later, sees him return to the same seat. In the ninety minutes or so in between, religion is discussed many times within the studio walls, but only in relation to the film within the film, subtitled ‘A Tale of the Christ’, in which a Roman soldier finds God. Like the priest with whom Mannix speaks, Jesus is present in Capitol’s Hail, Caesar! but his face is obscured, functioning principally as the subject of the protagonist’s musings.
Although Mannix is a practising Catholic, his primary driving force seems to be not religion, but capitalism. The same is the case for his studio; their epic is above all a prestige project fronted by their biggest name, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney). Again, religion is of secondary importance. The greatest concern is that their film may cause offence, which could damage their reputation and their box office receipts. When Mannix gathers together two priests, a minister, and a rabbi to give informed feedback on the script, the four religious figures seem only to agree on Whitlock’s renown.
Whitlock’s captors are revealed to be a Communist cell that refers to itself as The Future, which sets about indoctrinating him. The actor absorbs these theories earnestly, and later regurgitates the very same spiel to Mannix, remarking that they are both stooges who unquestionably serve those at the top of Capitol’s hierarchy. Whitlock lacks a deep-rooted belief in the capitalist system, despite having benefited greatly from it. In a later scene, while he is shooting the climactic monologue of his studio’s big production, he is unable to bring the final word to mind: faith.
Mannix responds to Whitlock’s Marxist insights by quite literally slapping some sense into him, and is quick to remind the actor that the studio’s power structures have worked in both of their interests. He may have sheer force on his side, but Mannix makes no effort to address the Das Kapital-inspired points put forward by Whitlock. He neither refutes the logic of communism nor extols the value of capitalism, instead dismissing the actor’s doubt as unacceptable due to its ungrateful nature.
It would not be a stretch to understand Mannix as a Christ-like figure, working in the name of an unseen studio executive, Max Schenk, who rules above him. He is tempted by earthly pleasures – cigarettes and a better paid, but more morally dubious, career path – which he struggles to resist. The institution that he is most closely bound to is not the Catholic Church, though, but the knowingly named Capitol Pictures. It is the movie business that is Mannix’s calling in life. His loyalty may be tested by other job offers, but it is his ‘inner voice’ that guides him back to the studio.
For Mannix, Hollywood not only gives his own life meaning and drive; it helps audiences to believe in the existence of a better world. The studio system is capitalism both at its most glamorous and most hopeful. Every dance routine, synchronised swim and horse-riding handstand can be executed flawlessly on screen if money is flowing. If the philosopher William Paley used the complexity of the watch as an analogy to argue for the existence of a creator, Mannix’s repeated glances at his wrist can be understood in this light: he may not have made the world, but he keeps it spinning. The central character of Hail, Caesar! is a Catholic capitalist devoted both to secular and spiritual causes. Like so many before him, he ensures that his favoured worldview continues to tick. In a twentieth-century twist, though, the primary provider of his faith is Hollywood.
Hail, Caesar! is currently showing at the Ultimate Picture Palace, rated 12A.
Earlier versions of this article are available at The Draft Man’s Contract.