From Fargo to Hail Caesar: seeking God in film

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The most recent film from the esteemed directorial brothers, Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail Caesar is a very funny portrayal of the glory years of Hollywood.

The Coen brothers are eclectic filmmakers and very much an “acquired” taste. Their films range from the absurd cult comedies, The Big Lebowski and Burn After Reading to the brooding, acclaimed, and very violent, No Country for Old Men.

There is though, in many of their films, a thematic grappling with Judeo-Christian themes. Fargo (where a pregnant detective provides the moral clarity lacking in all the other characters), A Serious Man (a modern retelling of the book of Job), O Brother Where art Thou (where a sceptic is faced with overt revelations of God’s providence), and True Grit (which explores the relationship between justice and mercy) are all films that take religious themes seriously, albeit in sometime quirky and comedic ways.

Hail Caesar, like these other films, is not afraid to explore religious themes. The central character is an overtly Catholic man, who is trying, despite his many frailties, to do what is right and good. Josh Brolin plays Eddie Mannix, famed studio boss and fixer in an industry rife with scandal and eccentric actors.

The film is bookended with Mannix going to Confession, a sacrament he seems to frequent daily. He is shown to be a very much a family man and respected by all as a man of integrity.

One of the key plots of the film is the effort by a major corporation to tempt Mannix away from his role at the studio into a job with far greater security and financial reward. The story follows Mannix’s process of discernment highlighting key lessons, I think, for us all.

He asks the one most affected by any decision, his wife. She gives her support for any decision he may take. This is something we should all do when faced with difficult choices or moral decisions, especially where a family is involved. But even when no one is directly affected, we should always seek the counsel of others whose wisdom we trust.

Before he takes his decision, Mannix seeks the will of God through the priest in the Confessional. The answer: “My son, do what is right; God wants you to do the right thing.”

This gives Mannix the clarity and peace he needs to make the right decision and do what is good.

The first principle of the natural law/Christian morality is “Do good, avoid evil.” (cf. Romans 12:9) When faced with any decision this is the basic starting point: choose that which is good, never do anything morally bad.

Mannix’s job at the studio is to ensure a multitude of big budget movies get made on time and on budget, all the while managing pretentious actors and directors and their problematic moral lives.

Although he is weak, principally symbolised by his inability to give up smoking, Mannix is brilliant at helping bring order to an industry riven with chaos. He tries to do the right thing: by God, by his family, by the studio, and by the many people he oversees.

Towards the end of the movie, Mannix confronts the studio’s most famous actor, Baird Whitlock (George Clooney, who very humorously spends the entire film dressed as a Roman centurion, the main character in a Ben-Hur type biblical epic, Hail Caesar: the Story of the Christ).

Whitlock has just returned to the studio after being kidnapped by a group of Communist screen-writers (yes, the film borders on the absurd). During his stay with the writers Whitlock is quite taken with their theories and starts to espouse them to Mannix. In a rare display of anger, Mannix hits Whitlock a number of times and tells him to get back on set and finish the film.

In other words, do that which we employ you to do, what you’re good at, and stop with that communist nonsense. The next shot is Whitlock back on the set of the biblical epic, standing at the foot of the crucified Jesus.

In this scene – demonstrated by the lines that Whitlock forgets at the end of a very moving speech of conversion to his new King on the cross – the need for faith is emphasised. To do what is right, to do the will of God, you need faith.

It seems to me that today one of the best ways to communicate theological truths is through the stories told on screen. Creation is the great drama of God (theo-drama) and any story told within that creation has to reveal something of its author.

This is why all stories, including films and television series, always involve, to varying degrees, free will, moral choice, sin, good and evil, love, redemption, sacrifice, justice and mercy (amongst many other theological themes). Thus film and television represent an important medium for us to speak about God and the Christian life.

At least for me, the films of the Coen brothers are wonderful teaching tools to speak about the faith (but a warning, they are an acquired taste!)