Over the next two weeks, The Atlantic will delve into some of the most interesting films of the year by examining a single, noteworthy moment—whether a bank robbery gone wrong or a history-changing phone call—and unpacking what it says about 2016. First up is the Coen Brothers’ Hail, Caesar! (The whole “And, Scene” series will appear here.)
It might have been because of its early release date (February 1), or its airy, vignette-heavy plot, but when it came out Hail, Caesar! was dismissed by many as a minor Coen Brothers comedy—a satire of Hollywood’s “Golden Age” of moviemaking that felt largely trapped in amber. But its veneration of vintage pop art turned out to have one foot in the present, reminding viewers that all art is political, no matter how milquetoast the branding might be.
The film’s ostensible storyline saw studio executive Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) shepherding the production of an epic period drama with the same title, an obvious homage to 1959’s Ben-Hur. In one scene, Mannix gathers four religious leaders—a Protestant minister, a Greek Orthodox patriarch, a Catholic priest, and a Jewish rabbi—to consult them on his film’s portrayal of Christ. “We don’t want to send it to market except in the certainty that it will not offend any reasonable American regardless of faith or creed,” he intones.
It’s a silly goal, one that could succeed only if the film in question is presented as blandly as possible. Still, even the biggest, most mainstream films regularly lead to outrage, as 2016 proved again and again: The all-female casting of Ghostbusters prompted a wave of sexist backlash from critics who had yet to see the movie, and Rogue One sparked a debate over whether its story was meant to be a commentary on the presidential election.
The Hail, Caesar! scene quickly ramps up into a theological argument, underlining the absurdity of Mannix’s goal. Immediately, the debate extends beyond the fictional film’s merits and into the nature of Jesus himself. The priest notes that Christ is not God, nor God Christ. “You can say that again! The Nazarene was not God!” the rabbi interjects. “He was not not God,” the patriarch replies. “Part God!” the minister argues. The dialogue bounces around faster and faster as Eddie’s brow furrows: “There is unity in division ... and division in unity,” the priest and the patriarch yell at each other in an exchange that could practically serve as a slogan for the last year in American culture.
Mannix seems genuinely invested in trying to chart a middle way for his studio’s film, but in the end, he can take satisfaction only in having not obviously offended anyone further. “I haven’t an opinion,” the rabbi ultimately demurs when asked if the film bothered him; after all the angry debate, it’s the perfect laugh-line to end on. The meta-joke, of course, is that much as in Ben-Hur, Hail, Caesar! only depicts Jesus fleetingly, and with no personality outside of a general holy glow. The idea that anyone could be offended is as ridiculous as it is sadly plausible.
Hail, Caesar! is loaded with funny, disconnected scenes like this one, including an actor-director showdown over the line “Would that it were so simple” and a stupendous, innuendo-laden musical number starring Channing Tatum. In each one, Mannix is tinkering around in the background, keeping the gears of the Hollywood machine well-oiled. In the film’s climactic moment, Hail, Caesar!’s star Baird Whitlock (George Clooney) declares to Mannix that he’s converted to Communism, ranting about the evils of the capitalist machine providing yet another opiate for the masses. He receives a vigorous slap for his troubles, with Mannix barking at him about the importance of what they do. “The picture has worth, and you have worth if you serve the picture!” he yells.
In making a satire of 1950s Hollywood, the Coen Brothers struck on the inherently ridiculous dichotomy at the heart of all mass-market entertainment: the simultaneous pointlessness and deep value of pop culture, impressive in its ability to reach the lowest common denominator if nothing else. So much has changed in the intervening decades (indeed, this year’s edition of Ben-Hur was pitched right at Christian audiences and was hardly a hit), but the general thrust of the Coens’ argument remains the same. The picture has worth, no matter how trivial it might seem, and in 2016 there was no piece of pop culture that wasn’t primed to become a battleground under the right circumstances.
Next Up: Mountains May Depart