Monday, February 15, 2016

We Hail "Hail, Caesar!"

This is a great movie, a refreshing one, the kind of movie we don’t regret laying down our hard-to-come-by dollars to see, one we can enjoy thoroughly on the spot, and then have something of value to take away with us.  If you don’t get anything else out of our review, or, if you stop reading with this sentence, just take this with you: the Coen Brothers have hit the jackpot with this one.  They’ve done something very hard to do: they have actually managed to portray a character who is good, not just innocent, but good.
Simone Weil, the profound French Christian thinker who sacrificed her own life identifying with the plight of her fellow Jews who were suffering in WWII concentration camps, observed in her essay “Morality and Literature”:  “Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually refreshing and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good.  No desert is so dreary, monotonous, and boring as evil.  This is the truth about authentic good and evil.  With fictional good and evil it is the other way around.  Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound, and full of charm.”[1] Depicting good accurately is the challenge before all artists.
Portraying goodness is not to be confused with depicting innocence.  “Hail, Caesar!” also beautifully portrays innocence in the character of Hobie Doyle, a western star catapulted wide-eyed with wonder into a dramatic role, played with style, grace, and an engaging bonhomie by Alden Ehrenreich. Innocence, however, can be corrupted, but goodness has made its choice. 
Across the board the acting is first rate in all the supporting roles (no ringers in this film), led by the versatile George Clooney, who turns in a convincing imitation of shallow in his deft portrayal of Autolicus[2] (the name suggests auto-localized, or self-absorbed).  But the real focus, as the voiceover reveals (while it, along with the lighting and photography) helps deliver the gritty nostalgic feel of the past’s B-level movie frame of comic film noir around the making of an A-level project, is Josh Brolin’s Eddie Mannix, according to the film’s website, “ A studio fixer with an endless supply of problems to fix, Eddie’s work is never done. Whether bribing the cops to prevent one of his stars from being hauled in on a morals charge or ensuring an epic picture doesn’t tank, the devoted husband may have two kids at home…but he has many more children to wrangle on the lot.”  What this doesn’t say is that Josh Brolin’s Oscar-level performance as protagonist Eddie Mannix conveys a studio executive with a deep and abiding faith in Jesus who may be jaded with the behavior of his actors but still maintains faith in the value of the film he is helping them create, an epic on the life of Christ as seen through the eyes of a Victor Mature-type Roman soldier.  A daily attender of confession, who even wears out his priest with his laundry list of minor sins (with confessions like “I lied to my wife and smoked one – no, maybe two cigarettes), Eddie’s faithful check-in every 24-27 hours is essential for him to keep himself on a personally virtuous course, for, as the studio fixer, he must set the tone of morality for all these morally bankrupt, or at least salvage their reputations as family-friendly, even if that means bribing the police to look the other way as he rescues a starlet from destroying her career by posing for “French postcards,” or slapping around a recalcitrant actor whose McCarthy era misjudgment may destroy the entire film.  His is a real, devout, and lived-out faith in God and goodness contextualized in the real world – delivered with just the right measure of sincere, flawed, fervent orthodoxy – or as close as he can stumble into it.
Much of the credit for this accomplishment, of course, goes to the writing, directing, and producing of this movie, all in the hands of Joel and Ethan Coen, whose award-winning films like “Brother, Where Art Thou?” had well integrated religious tones.  In “Hail, Caesar!” they support the honoring of faith in God right up to a closing sign glimpsed in the final shot on a water tower in the distance – and, even beyond that, to the ironic announcement at the end of the credits in place of the usual announcement that no animal has been hurt in the making of this film: the assurance that no depiction of God has been made in this movie.
Such comic under-cuttings continually keep this film from becoming pretentious or maudlin by taking itself too seriously, and, yet, the humor relief is so well done that, when we in the audience are through laughing, we are left with an after-thought that highlights the sober fact that every endeavor that seeks to influence people is serious business and must be held accountable for what it conveys.  For Eddie Mannix, the usual fatuous ploy – “Well, if you don’t like what we do or show, just turn it off or leave the theater!” – is not an option.  He knows the impact on the public of immoral behavior and immoral films and he works very hard to beat something of moral value he can be proud to show his own family out of these self-absorbed, morally clueless thespians and directors and the parasites and piranha that swim hungrily around them.
Even the villains in this movie are sympathetically portrayed.  What motivates them is explained and they are all likeable pawns, deluded by forces so sinister not one them apprehends, understands, or even glimpses the real intentions beyond the theoretical hoopla the intelligentsia churns out or the chilling reality the arms manufacturers present as inevitable destiny.  In all this flux, Eddie Mannix’s job is to understand and to control the damage done in his own sphere of influence and the film’s tension is about whether or not he can continue to accept this taxing responsibility as a mission for his life.  
The central message that we, as viewers, take away from this film is that of Deuteronomy 6:18: “Do what is right and good in the sight of the Lord, so that it may go well with you.”  God wants each of us to do the right thing at each moment of our lives and there is no message greater that each one of us needs to hear in today’s morally stumbling world. 
We hail “Hail, Caesar!” – and even think the nearly implacable Simone Weil would have enjoyed this film and found it worthwhile. 
           Bill and Ada
p.s. Those who want to read an enjoyable book of sometimes chilling but ultimately uplifting real life experiences of those surviving the temptations of Hollywood to create the current Hollywood spiritual and moral revival, please watch for Jeanne DeFazio and Bill’s forthcoming book (due this spring), Redeeming the Screens, from the House of Prisca and Aquila series of Wipf and Stock Publishers (available on the House of Prisca Aquila website, Wipf and Stock’s website, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, etc.).

[1] You can find this quotation and similar wisdom both in this essay and “On the Responsibility of Writers” collected in The Simone Weil Reader, ed. George A. Panichas (Mount Kisco, NY: Moyer Bell, 1977).  This quotation is on page 290.
[2] Please note: spelling not able to be confirmed.

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