THE COEN BROTHERS have a thing about left-wing writers. As many critics have already noted, it’s hard to watch the newest film by Joel and Ethan Coen, Hail, Caesar!, without comparing it to 1991’s Barton Fink. Despite their marked differences in approach and tone, both films are about movie-making during Hollywood’s Golden Age. They share plot elements both large — the two films revolve around a studio named Capitol Pictures, a fictional amalgamation of the classical era’s Big Five — and small — Fink’s titular writer is assigned a wrestling picture starring Wallace Beery, a once-famous but now all-but-forgotten early Hollywood actor whose name graces a conference room in Caesar. And sure enough, both movies are also about writers who seek to promulgate left-wing ideals through filmmaking: Barton (John Turturro) is a Clifford Odets-style playwright who wants to tell stories about “the common man,” while Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the lead actor in Caesar’s film-within-a-film (which is also called Hail, Caesar!) is kidnapped by a group of Communist Party-aligned writers who hope to use Hollywood to “accelerate the dialectic” to hasten capitalism’s demise.
Given the influence of Preston Sturges’s Sullivan’s Travels (1941) on the Coen brothers’ oeuvre — their first collaboration with Clooney, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), derives its title from the (unmade) film-within-a-film in Sturges’s classic — it’s worth noting that Sullivan was also about a filmmaker (a director, this time) who wants to present “a true canvas of the suffering of humanity” during the Great Depression. In that film, of course, the director comes to realize that what the downtrodden want most (it appears) is not social critique but simple, light-hearted entertainment. Seeming to take their cue from Sturges, both Fink and Caesar can be read as similarly dismissive of the ambitions of politically committed filmmakers: Barton is so wrapped up in his own aesthetic theories that he does not even listen to the common man he purports to represent, while Caesar’s Communists are lampooned as kvetchers who seem more motivated by resentment at their low compensation in the studio system than by the world-historical tasks of Marxism.
I want to argue, though, that while Caesar, like Fink, can be read as a sustained reworking of Sullivan’s formal and thematic structures, the Coens’ latest work ends up offering a surprisingly complex — and, in comparison to Fink, more hopeful — understanding of the political possibilities of cinema. I know, I know: such a claim seems implausible if not directly counterintuitive, given not just the antic silliness of Caesar but also the fact that the Coens are frequently tagged as cynics if not outright misanthropes. But I would suggest that Hail, Caesar! amounts to a cinematic argument that the personal motivations of the Coens — or of any film worker — are entirely beside the point to a film’s political value.
But first, Sullivan’s Travels: as you may recall, the titular character, a successful director of escapist movies (titles include Hey, Hey, in the Hayloft and Ants in Your Plants of 1939), decides that the only way he can make a socially relevant film about poverty and suffering is to experience it himself. Dressing up as a hobo, he tries to leave behind his privileged life to experience the “real” world. For the first half of the film, the joke is that he finds it basically impossible to get out of Hollywood, both literally and figuratively: his attempts to leave the city repeatedly end with his return, in episodes that play out through a series of clichéd, generic situations from lowbrow filmmaking (car chases, slapstick comedy, and so on). Even when Sullivan manages finally to join the dispossessed, we still find ourselves in cinematically constituted worlds: his time riding the rails echoes William A. Wellman’s 1933 film Wild Boys of the Road (right down to his tomboyish companion, billed only as The Girl, played by Veronica Lake), while his later accidental incarceration in a southern prison borrows liberally from Mervyn LeRoy’s I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932). Sullivan discovers the importance of entertainment near the film’s end, when he and his fellow prisoners watch a screening of a Disney cartoon. After seeing the delight this cartoon produces in the audience, Sullivan rededicates himself (once he has been freed) to the kinds of films he previously tried to disavow.
Fink, I would suggest, plays out the darker possibilities of Sullivan, while Caesar operates according to its more comedic impulses. If Sullivan is beaten and robbed by one of the homeless men he meets during his travels, Barton discovers that the “common man” who lives next door to him, Charlie Meadows (John Goodman), is actually a serial killer named Karl Mundt. And although Fink’s final act involves a few surreal events that prevent any assured claims as to “what really happened,” the film strongly implies that Meadows/Mundt has not only killed the writer couple that Barton had befriended, but also his extended (Jewish) family back in New York. In doing so, Fink suggests that, by refusing to listen to the common man, Barton is unable to see the potential threats that he poses — a reading reinforced by the fact that, in one of the Easter egg details that the Coens are fond of, Karl Mundt is the name of a real-life U.S. congressman who helped block efforts to accept Jewish refugees during World War II, and who served on the House Un-American Activities Committee during its investigation of Hollywood. Like Sullivan, then, Barton ends the film disillusioned with his previously held cultural politics. But where Sullivan returns to Hollywood as a willing and eager worker in its dream factory, Barton finds himself trapped in artistic purgatory: his socially conscious version of a wrestling picture is rejected by the studio, which nonetheless insists that he is still under contract, even as they refuse to produce anything he will write. Sullivan’s comedic depiction of a film worker’s inability to escape Hollywood becomes Fink’s tragic conclusion.
In comparison to Fink’s fever-dream intensity and art cinema-style ambiguity, Hail, Caesar! appears as an inconsequential lark: tragedy repeated as farce. We don’t even encounter any anguished left-wing writers until roughly the middle of the film; instead, we follow the busy schedule of Eddie Mannix (James Brolin), a studio “fixer” (his official title is “Head of Physical Production”) whose job it is to ensure a smoothly rolling assembly line of film production while also protecting the studio’s stars from any bad publicity. (Brolin’s character shares the name of a real-life fixer who worked at MGM for 40 years.) Mannix serves as the narrative conceit that enables the Coens to offer a series of pastiches of classical-era film genres, which in turn provide the bulk of the film’s light pleasures. Gentle parodies are offered of Esther Williams-style water ballet, George Cukoresque drawing room comedy, singing cowboy Westerns, Gene Kelly musicals, and of course big-budget, CinemaScope-wide, biblical epics that tended to have subtitles like A Tale of the Christ (the subtitle of both Ben-Hur  and the Hail, Caesar! within Hail, Caesar!). In this way, Caesar adopts Sullivan’s procedure of treating each of its narrative episodes in a different generic style, but it literalizes this strategy, showing the audience not just different styles but also snapshots of entirely different films.
That said, it is worth inquiring more closely as to why the biblical epic is installed at the center (such as it is) of Caesar’s narrative action. Interestingly, it is one of the few Golden Age genres not to have been critically resuscitated in recent film studies (even Esther Williams films have been recuperated in such works as Amy Herzog’s Dreams of Difference, Songs of the Same). Surely part of its appeal to the Coens is its current low cultural standing, as well as how damn ridiculous the things look: since Baird is kidnapped during a break in shooting, he is forced to spend the entire movie walking around in his Roman soldier costume, which neatly robs Clooney of any genuine movie star glamour that might disrupt the doofiness of his not-too-bright character. The biblical epic also enables the film’s second-funniest sequence,[i] which is Mannix’s meeting with a group of religious leaders (two priests, a minister, and a rabbi — see, it already sounds like the first line of a joke!) on the appropriate representation of “the Godhead” in Hail, Caesar! As the Coens are fond of generating narrative rhymes in their films, the theological mysteries discussed amongst the religious authorities (e.g., the simultaneous division between and unity of God and Christ) are cleverly echoed later in the doctrinal paradoxes articulated by the Communist “study group” members who kidnap Baird (as they explain the simultaneous division between and unity of humanity under capitalism). The similarities drawn between the representatives of Judeo-Christian values and of Marxist subversion underline the fact that both groups are concerned with the ideological content of Hollywood film: Mannix is eager to reassure the men of faith that Hail, Caesar! will respect their views, while the Communists explain to Baird that they routinely smuggle their views into the subtexts of the films they write.[ii]
Baird proves surprisingly open to joining the Communist cause, which, it should be noted, is perhaps the film’s most implausible note. Since the film takes place in 1951, some three years after the studios’ Waldorf Statement announcing that they would employ no known Communist Party member in the industry, no actor of Baird’s fame would be so foolish as to sign a Party membership card (as Baird does). Still, the fact that his conversion in the film we are watching matches, via another narrative rhyme, his character’s conversion in the film-within-a-film — his Roman tribune becomes a follower of Jesus — gets us closer, I would argue, to why the Coens have their fictional Communists abduct the star of a biblical epic, rather than, say, singing cowboy Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich, who is as great as everyone says).
As Jeff Smith has argued, many 1950s blockbuster films about ancient Rome have been subsequently read as allegories of the Hollywood blacklist specifically, and of the persecution of political dissidents during the period more generally.[iii] Smith focuses on 1953’s The Robe — the first film released in CinemaScope — which, like Caesar’s film-within-a-film, is about a Roman soldier (played by Richard Burton) who converts to Christianity. The film offers a healthy amount of textual encouragement to read it as a Red Scare allegory, such as the scene in which the Roman emperor Tiberius tells the protagonist, “I want names, Tribune, names of all the disciples, of every man and woman who subscribe to this treason.” Smith notes that a number of critics have argued that the anti-McCarthyite subtext of The Robe is due to the efforts of its writers: Albert Maltz, a member of the Hollywood Ten, wrote an early, uncredited draft of the screenplay, which was then completed by Philip Dunne, who helped found the Committee for the First Amendment, a group of film and culture industry workers who protested the HUAC hearings. Such readings, Smith writes, “suggest that one of those persons silenced by HUAC had nonetheless found a disguised way to critique government repression,” which is evidence of how “the radical left tweaked the collective noses of Hollywood by using its norms and conventions of representation” to articulate its political resistance. Which is to say, more or less, the screenwriting practice declared by Baird’s Communist captors.
There’s only one problem with this explanation of The Robe’s subtext: it doesn’t hold up if you look at the film’s actual production history. Smith carefully recounts how some of the details from The Robe that critics have cited as evidence of its anti-blacklist meanings actually come from the Lloyd Douglas novel on which the screenplay was based — a novel written in 1942, years before the HUAC investigation of Hollywood and the Waldorf Statement. Maltz’s screenplay, which added the “naming names” subplot, also predates these events. Dunne’s finished script, meanwhile, actually removed many of the possible allusions to the blacklist, while producer Darryl Zanuck — no one’s idea of a Red subversive — at one point recommended including a story element that “sought to blame the persecution of Christians on a bureaucratic government committee rather than a power-mad, dictatorial emperor,” a change that, as Smith points out, would have emphasized the relation between the film’s events and those surrounding the blacklist (this proposed change was not realized in the final version of the film). Thus, Smith concludes, claims for The Robe’s allegorical subtext cannot be grounded in a quasi-conspiratorial effort by left-wing film workers to smuggle in political commentary; instead, this allegorical reading is more plausibly derived from the relation of the finished film’s textual materials to the social and historical context of its 1953 release.
In other words, the history of The Robe’s production and reception demonstrates that it doesn’t matter who is responsible for a given textual element, nor does it matter what their motivations were — a film’s political signification operates largely independently from these factors. I would submit that this is more or less the punch line to Hail, Caesar! as well. After Baird returns to the studio and (again, implausibly) explains to Mannix his newfound belief in the Marxist theory of history and its related critique of the culture industry’s role in generating false consciousness, Mannix angrily slaps him around while telling him that he needs to return to the set of Hail, Caesar! in order to shoot that film’s climactic scene, in which Baird’s Roman soldier testifies to his newfound faith in Christ. “You’re going to believe everything you say!” Mannix angrily instructs Baird. And sure enough, in the filming of said scene, Baird delivers his lines with surprising conviction: after playing Baird as a second-rate ham for most of the film, Clooney breaks out his own genuine acting chops here to make this scene work. In fact, his performance is so compelling that various workers on the set stop what they are doing to watch Baird’s speech, visibly moved by its rhetorical power.
But there’s something funny about Baird’s monologue — it sounds as if it were informed as much by socialist ideology as by religious piety: “This man was giving water to all. He saw no Roman. He saw no slave. He saw only men — weak men and gave succor. He saw suffering which he sought to ease.” (Christ’s status as a radical egalitarian is also tied to his alignment with an oppressed diaspora: “God of this far-flung tribe.”) This implied association of early Christianity’s primitive communitarianism with modern-day socialist liberation reminds us that such associations were very much a concern of right-wing thinkers during the period in which Caesar is set. Smith notes that W. Cleon Skousen’s 1958 anti-communist best-seller The Naked Communist included an early chapter entitled “Did Early Christians Practice Communism?” (The answer, as you’d imagine, turns out to be “no.”) Moreover, after having seen Baird so readily persuaded by his Communist captors earlier in the film, one could be forgiven for asking — as his speech builds in intensity, with Baird testifying to a “truth beyond the truth that we can see” — is Baird actually sneaking in some Communist content of his own?
Before answering this question, it is worth comparing this climactic scene of an audience swept up in a cinematic performance to the analogous scene in Sullivan’s Travels. In that film, remember, the titular director finds new inspiration in his chosen profession after he sees his fellow prisoners — and the all-black congregation that has invited them to their church — explode in hysterical laughter as they watch a Disney cartoon. While most commentators have read this scene as Sturges’s comment on the superiority of “mere entertainment” to politically motivated filmmaking, Kathleen Moran and Michael Rogin suggest that it also makes available a much more sinister account of the culture industry.[iv] They note that the cartoon’s slapstick violence can also serve as “a reminder of the violence to which Sullivan, other prisoners, and free blacks are routinely subjected. When the inmates guffaw at Pluto stuck in flypaper they are recognizing their own confinement.” If the prisoners and other oppressed viewers see their own situation on-screen within Sullivan, Moran and Rogin argue, those of us in the audience of Sullivan see “our faces, reflected back in the disturbing, needy laughter of the prisoners.” The film thus suggests that “the horror of our own lives, our own need for fantasy, is what generates our collective plots.”
At the end of Sullivan, then, we see an audience transported by a scene of light entertainment, which, upon closer examination, implies the compensatory ideological function of such entertainment. At the end of Caesar, in contrast, we see an audience captivated not by light entertainment, but by a “message picture” — one whose message can be read as in alignment with dominant beliefs but could also be understood to be in pointed opposition to them. All we know for sure is that the performer articulating these possible messages doesn’t really mean any of them. For Baird messes up the end of the speech. Describing “a truth beyond this world — a truth that we could see if we had but …”, he is unable to remember the final word of the line: “faith.” But even as it sets Baird’s unexpectedly stirring monologue free of any authorial or performative intention, the final scene of the Hail, Caesar! within Hail, Caesar! nonetheless depicts and enacts the power of cinema to affect its audiences. While the Coens may have a great deal of fun mocking those who seek to impose authorial meaning on any film, they also allow us (for Clooney’s speech works on us, too, at least momentarily) to be swept up by cinema’s persuasive force. And though we don’t know whether the assembled film workers are responding to Christian belief or to the politics of the oppressed, the film’s location of this ambiguity in the similarly polysemous intertext of the blacklist-era biblical epic, I would suggest, keeps both of these ideological possibilities very much in play. Hail, Caesar! argues that filmmakers might be fooling themselves to believe that they can get audiences to think as they want them to think, but that doesn’t mean that film doesn’t move audiences to think.
But did the Coen brothers mean to signify all this? Hail, Caesar! teaches us to say, who cares?
[i] The funniest scene, of course, is that in which the Cukoresque director, Laurence Laurenz (Ralph Fiennes), tries to instruct Hobie Doyle (Aiden Ehrenreich) how to say “Would that it were so simple.”
[ii] In fact, the Communist cell is linked to closeted gay actor Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum), who attempts to smear Baird by telling gossip columnist Thora Thacker (Tilda Swindon) about the latter actor’s past same-sex relations. By depicting Communist writers as secretly inserting subversive messages into mainstream fare, and by linking homosexuality with the Red menace as the twin threats to Cold War America, the film does seem to play “the fears of its era at face value: That Tinseltown is a Sodom and Gomorrah of vice and anti-American subtexts, and that Soviet submarines lurk in American waters, signaled by leftist study groups,” as Ignatiy Vishnevetsky argued in his review of the film (“The Coens Swipe at Religion, Counterculture, and Hollywood in Hail, Caesar!” Onion A.V. Club, Feb. 4, 2016 (accessed Feb. 12, 2016)).
Still, as I argue, the film ultimately asks us to discard any concern with the intentionality of filmmakers, malevolent or otherwise.
[iii] Jeff Smith, “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Christian? The Strange History of The Robe and Political Allegory,” “Un-American” Hollywood: Politics and Film in the Blacklist Era, eds. Frank Krutnik, Steve Neale, Brian Neve, and Peter Stanfield (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 2007),19-38.
[iv] Kathleen Moran and Michael Rogin, “‘What’s the Matter with Capra?’: Sullivan’s Travels and the Popular Front,” Representations 71 (Summer 2000),106-134.
Derek Nystrom teaches film and cultural studies at McGill University, where he is Associate Professor of English. He is the author of Hard Hats, Rednecks, and Macho Men: Class in 1970s American Cinema (Oxford UP, 2009).