Jesus in Hollywood

It’s not uncommon to find spirituality in a Coen Brothers movie, but I didn’t expect to find it in such high volume in Hail, Caesar!, their latest project. Judging from the trailers, I expected a screwball comedy somewhere along the lines of O Brother Where Art Thou; George Clooney’s roguish movie star disappears (in full centurion costume), sending the entire old Hollywood studio on a hilarious manhunt to find the kidnappers. And while that estimate wasn’t altogether untrue, Hail, Caesar! is something more. At its heart of hearts, it’s a film about finding God, even in the most unlikely places.

As it turns out, the kidnapping of Clooney’s Baird Whitlock is just one scandal among many being juggled by Josh Brolin’s character Eddie Mannix, a “fixer,” or all-purpose problem solver. Put simply, it’s Mannix’s job to preserve the film studio’s image at all costs, from finding a husband to cover up a starlet’s pregnancy to fabricating relationships between studio darlings for publicity. And at the heart of the mayhem is the upcoming blockbuster Hail, Caesar!: A Tale of the Christ, a Ben-Hur style dramatization of the crucifixion.

Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, head of physical production at Capitol Pictures

But amidst the chaos and comedy, the film’s real tension lies within Mannix himself, as he contemplates leaving the studio for a career in aviation with Lockheed. The question he asks himself becomes the question the film asks us: are the movies really worth it?

The conflict finds full force at the return of Whitlock, who has been kidnapped by a cell of Communist subversives. Easily manipulated, he comes back to Mannix’s office spouting ideas he’s picked up from his captors about the capitalistic corruption of the movie industry.

“We may tell ourselves that we’re creating something of artistic value, that there’s some sort of spiritual dimension to the picture business,” Whitlock says, “but what it really is this fat cat… out in New York running this factory, serving out these lollipops, what you used to call the bread and circuses.”

George Clooney plays Baird Whitlock — actor and witless speaker of truth

And even though the narrative never gives Whitlock much credibility, if we’re even a little bit cynical, we can’t help but feel like he’s hit on something here. Despite Hollywood’s fairly consistent critique of capitalism, we can’t ignore the fact that at the end of the day, the movie industry is about making money, especially in the Coens’ fictionalized studio, Capitol (yeah, like capital) Pictures. After all, Mannix has spent his entire career producing illusions to preserve and maximize profit… and, here in the real world, I just paid $5.99 to rent the movie on iTunes. When Mannix violently insists that “the picture has worth,” we have to ask, What kind of worth? Is the value we see in movies legitimate, or is it just another illusion designed to make money?

It’s a complicated tension, and I don’t know that the Coens intend to resolve it completely. But the scene that follows, a take from the titular movie-within-the-movie, casts the film industry with all its corruption in an optimistically redemptive light.

“Why shouldn’t God’s anointed appear here, among these strange people to shoulder their sins?” Whitlock’s character monologues, staring up at the crucified Christ. “Why should he not take this form — the form of an ordinary man, a man bringing us not the old truths but a new one … a truth told not in words but in light?”

Of course, the speech’s poignancy doesn’t last; the mood is shattered in typical Coen fashion by a forgotten line (incidentally, Whitlock can’t remember the word “faith”). But the moment’s thematic power goes beyond the context of the fictional movie. After all, why shouldn’t God’s anointed appear in secular film? Why shouldn’t we walk away from a movie like The Return of the King or The Tree of Life or even Hail, Caesar! feeling spiritually enriched? Of course, you won’t find spiritual truth in every movie (good luck finding any in Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates). But if in Christ all things hold together, it follows that all truly good stories will echo His story, whether their creators intend the reference or not, whether the stories are literally true or not. That’s what the incarnation means: by coming to this illusory physical world, Christ redeemed it, worked through it, made it more real, more valuable.

In Hail, Caesar!, the Coens defend their chosen profession even as they critique it. Yes, at some level, the industry makes its millions on bread and circuses. We know, we know.

But God’s anointed is here. The picture has worth.

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