The Coen Brothers have earned a place in the top tier of Hollywood filmmakers with masterpieces like Fargo, No Country for Old Men, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and True Grit. Their latest film, Hail, Caesar! is yet another triumph for the brothers. It is a clever examination of our society’s ideas of heroism via a delightful romp through 1950s Hollywood.
Early in the movie, several religious leaders gather to discuss their opinion on a new film about Jesus Christ. The scene quickly devolves into a heated argument between the Catholic Priest, Jewish Rabbi, Protestant Minister, and Eastern Orthodox Bishop about the exact nature and importance of Jesus as a historical and religious figure. It’s a minor scene and the characters involved do not reappear, but the ideas discussed resonate throughout the film.
The majority of Hail, Caesar! takes place on the Capitol Pictures backlot. We catch glimpses of a Western, a Sword-and-Sandal epic, a mythic fantasy, an austere drama, and a musical comedy all being filmed on the lot, and each production’s hero represents the values of that genre. In the Western, the hero is a lone-ranger type who croons to the moon while strumming his guitar. The hero of the epic is a soldier and a leader of armies. The fantasy celebrates aesthetic beauty, and its hero is a beautiful mermaid. The drama features a hero who is cold, calculating, and cerebral. The hero of the musical comedy is a dashing, charming sailor looking for love. The interesting thing about Hail, Caesar!, and the crux of its commentary on heroism, is that none of these natural candidates is the true hero of the movie.
That role belongs to Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a producer at Capitol Pictures, whose job consists of fixing the problems that arise on set. He spends the movie dashing from crisis to crisis, trying to avert disaster, save reputations, and appease egos. What is it that makes Eddie the hero of the film? Why do we follow his story instead of one of the other, superficially more interesting ones that we’re shown glimpses of along the way?
Because Eddie believes in the power of these movies so much that he is willing to sacrifice his own success and well-being in order to see them succeed. Eddie works behind the scenes to make sure that movies get made, sacrificing his time, comfort, sleep, and a much better job in order to make the movies that he believes people need to see. He is selfless, generous, idealistic, good with people, and incredibly effective. These may not seem like the typical Heroic traits, but maybe that’s the point.
We need heroes, and not just high-flying, nazi-punching, larger than life heroes. We need regular heroes, people that we can look to for an example of how to live well, how to treat people, how to handle adversity. What I love about Hail, Caesar! is that it acknowledges that there’s a place for the first kind – the Hollywood Heroes – but it celebrates the second kind. Eddie is a normal guy. He’s not insanely talented or extraordinarily brave or supernaturally gifted, but he recognizes that there is something more important than himself, and he chooses to serve it with the gifts that he does have. That’s something that anyone can do, and it gives us a hero worth following.