N.B. These are reviews, not recaps. If you want plot summaries, hit up Wikipedia or IMDB. Still, a *minor* spoiler or two follows.
Movies make me happy. Not for the sake of entertainment, but in the particular punch of storytelling that only feature-length Hollywood can deliver. I have no patience with bad films (which are legion), and cannot tire of re-watching a good one.
As previously stated, time to spend on movies, particularly new movies, is a rare commodity, and movies worthy of that precious investment are few and far between. Even so, Rachel and I managed to sneak in a date night recently to watch a new film at the theater, and managed to snag another new release at home. These two features don’t have much connection beyond that fact that we just saw them both and that both involve the input of Joel & Ethan Coen.
Writing a genuinely funny film that keeps all the humor on key for two hours is an accomplishment. Doing that these days without swiping at the low-hanging fruit of crude or sexual exhibitionism is even more impressive. Pulling it all off while weaving deeper emotional heft into the film is a triumph.
Hail, Caesar! marks the first time in a very, very long time that I’ve left the theater after a comedy without the least cringing or regret. That’s not to say there is nothing off-color here, but that most of it is tasteful and all of it works to advance the plot.
This is a tongue-in-cheek-in-cheek work, marrying the Coen brothers’ carefully crafted sense of absurdity with their wide-ranging fascination with Hollywood history. Inside jokes layered upon inside jokes abound. For me, a classic film junkie, nearly all the winks hit home—I am fairly certain I was smiling or laughing for every second of the running time.
The beauty of this work, however, is that it is so well timed and acted that it would be almost as funny to someone who missed all the layered meanings, who knew absolutely nothing about the old studio system, all the hushed-up scandals of yesteryear, or the plots of the many great movies parodied in this sprawling sendup. It is that rarest of animals, the “highbrow-lowbrow” comedy. Who, after all, can hold back a snigger when a director tells his star in a biblical epic to “squint into the grandeur”, or when a man confesses that he “struck a movie star in anger” to his baffled priest?
Though Caesar! has been only a modest financial success, critics have found it endearing, particularly within conservative (here, here, and here) and Christian media. The film seems to take certain aspects of its story (the value of work, the role of entertainment in society, and yes, religion) fairly seriously, while still being able to crack wise about them.
What those reviews intuit is that this is not just a good comedy (though it is not less than that) but that the Coens have tapped into something deeper. Caesar! is Hollywood’s soul-searching, born of deep doubts about the growing irrelevance of movies in an instant culture, wondering if the wealth and power they enjoy is fading and, ultimately, wasted. This paean to the “golden age” of movies is stirring precisely because people miss it. We miss when “pictures” were important, not merely checked-out entertainment but enjoyable and poignant shared experiences of our culture.
Many of the so-called culture makers are content to live on as Baird Whitlock (George Clooney’s character in the film), making money hand over fist while caring not a whit for the craft and gladly babbling regurgitated pseudopolitical talking points to feel good about themselves. Others are, no doubt, like Burt Gurney (Channing Tatum) and his co-conspirators, using the pull of entertainment to subliminally indoctrinate the masses. Viewers are left to wonder, however, if “good guys” like Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin, who is outstanding as the core of this story) and Hobie Doyle (an impressive Alden Ehrenreich) still exist, or ever did. Even that is one of the Coens’ best jokes—the real Eddie Mannix was an utter scoundrel, an exact doppelgänger of the man Brolin brings to life here.
Seeing this movie just prior to (an attempt at) watching the Oscars, brought these themes immediately to mind. The self-absorption that has always more or less characterized the industry is on humorous full display in Caesar!, but there are still adults in the room keeping things together and making the system work. Today’s Hollywood has so completely swallowed itself that the “scandal” of #OscarsSoWhite consumed the entire ceremony, overshadowing the honorees of the night (which included several accomplished films that actually tackled issues of substance with artistic merit).
Bridge of Spies
The second Coen-spun film we watched recently was Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies (for which the brothers, along with Matt Charman, wrote the screenplay). Though not as remarkable an achievement overall as Hail, Caesar!, this was nevertheless a solid, enjoyable movie. It certainly further cements Spielberg’s status as America’s “Slightly Fictionalized Historian-in-Chief” in the tradition of Schindler’s List, Amistad, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, Lincoln, etc., belting out the ballad of the unsung hero.
Tom Hanks, playing his usual highly-capable everyman, guaranteed some level of success, and endearing (now Oscar-winning) Mark Rylance gives heart to a tale of espionage, treason, Cold War brinksmanship, and good old American dealmaking. Somehow though, it manages to rise above even those stalwart expectations, unabashedly praising the inherent goodness of republican democracy and rule of law in an era when we have all but lost faith in all our institutions.
Spielberg and the Coens mined an era (the late 50s and early 60s) and events (the U2 incident and East German prisoner swap) not well plumbed by popular history, to show how the truly key players in world-shaping are often inconsequential middlemen. That, in itself, is a testimony to the American experiment—living proof of man’s equality with man.
Though I am of two minds (at best) of most of the Coens’ oeuvre, both of these fine films strike needed notes in an increasingly troubled time. With all the bluster of uninformed political rhapsodizing from the centers of culture, is it any wonder that a nation of moviegoers is staring into the void of a very real political crisis dominated by vapid celebrity? In the age of Trump, perhaps Hollywood should fully weigh what it lost when it gave up trying to lift up and inspire America with stories that cut across the lines that so define us now. When the powerbrokers are asleep at the switch, we desperately need to recover the tenacity, decency, and trustworthiness these pictures hold up for acclaim.