With the body politic being what it is lately, it’s unsurprising that so many films of late have been centered around the problems of and dissatisfaction with our economic system: movies like Wolf of Wall Street, The Big Short, shows like Billions, and the upcoming film Money Monster all rhyme, thematically, along with similar fare that came out during the Reagan era, when the financialization of the economy had begun to take hold. But along with the rise of “Wall Street” films that followed the 2008 crash, which argued that the (otherwise good) system had been corrupted by unrestricted greed, brought about by either deregulation or regulatory capture (depending on who you ask—but really, both), there came films that expressed an increasing cynicism about the system itself, and the inequality that it produces, such as Snowpiercer and Elysium. Presently, the neoliberal ideologies that have reigned since the 80’s have begun to lose their hegemony over our conscience, and we have begun to look both forward and backward for solutions to our problems. With both fascist and socialist political movements emerging, around the developed world, as potential alternatives to the current system of global, financial capitalism, it may seem to liberals and conservatives alike that the lessons of both WWII and the Cold War may end up being learned all over again.
It is interesting, then, to see two films come out in recent months that deal specifically with the controversial ways that the ideologies of the Cold War played out in Hollywood: Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach, and the Coen Brother’s Hail, Ceasar! mirror each other, in this respect. Trumbo is a well-made biopic about the screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who was instrumental in ending the film industry’s notorious blacklist against alleged communists. It is probably the director’s most heavy-hitting film, as he is most known for light comedies like Austin Powers, though he also made Recount, an HBO dramatization of the 2000 elections. Hail, Ceasar! on the other hand, is one of the Coen’s straight-up comedies. Like many of their films, it’s a farce, and lies somewhere in the territory of Barton Fink and The Big Lebowski in style and tone. And unlike Trumbo, which is critical of the McCarthyism in Hollywood, Hail, Ceasar! provides a vision of that era through the eyes of the film industry itself, represented through the various personalities that function within it’s machinery. Both of these tellings center around the intersections of art and ideals, of power and ethics.
In spite of what conservatives may think of the film, Trumbo isn’t a pro-communist story; it’s fundamentally liberal film that sympathetically portrays the communist screenwriters without spending much time on their politics. As Dalton Trumbo, expertly played by Bryan Cranston, explains in a speech at the end of the film, this is a story of evil—not the evil of persons but of illiberal institutions and structures that corrupt. The film has it’s villains—if you didn’t already dislike figures like John Wayne and Reagan for their involvement in the blacklists, this movie may change your mind—but it also shows otherwise decent figures compromised by the intense pressures of the time. The protagonist is also compromised: as Cranston has said in interviews, Trumbo was an anti-capitalist who loved making money; on the other hand, he was also willing to go to prison for his ideals. As the movie shows, people aren’t as simple as the structures that would attempt to define them. Ultimately, the film values the personal character of individuals like Trumbo, who are able to overcome the limitations that are placed upon them, both by ideologies and institutions.
Historically, this kind of individualism is a product of the humanism that developed from Christianity, which is based on a belief in the power of the individual to change. Such individualism doesn’t exist, for instance, in classical Greek literature, in which “characters do not change, only their situation,” as described by the poet W.H. Auden. Instead of bringing about a personal or paradigmatic change, the ancient pagan heroes always ended up back where they began. As writer Stephen Maher wrote, every Coen brothers film is basically a re-telling of the Homeric myth, “in which the main character has to go on some quest to transform himself in order to accommodate the ‘home’ he returns to at the end of the journey.” To our modern notions, the underlying fatalism of the Odyssey seems ultimately bleak. As Auden observed:
The world of Homer is unbearably sad because it never transcends the immediate moment; one is happy, one is unhappy, one wins, one loses, finally one dies. That is all.
The somber, truncated feeling we get from watching Coen films is, perhaps, made a bit more bearable by their particular skills and their employment of humor. In Hail, Ceasar!, the Communists are the villains, ostensibly, but like the “Nihilists” in Lebowski, their sense of menace is ultimately undermined by their being somewhat comically ineffectual. In the end, their inflated sense of righteousness and rigid adherence to ideals proves to be self-defeating in practice. The Coen Brothers, like Woody Allen, don’t put much stock in either philosophy or religion’s capacity to meaningfully alter the human condition, though they seem to prefer the simplicity that faith can provide to endless philosophizing. They prefer the “foolish” wisdom of a St. Francis or a Parsifal to hubristic modern thought.
Like Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, there is a film within the film (entitled Hail, Ceasar!—A Tale of The Christ) that sort of mirrors and parodies the themes of the encompassing film. In it, “Ceasar,” played by George Clooney, encounters The Christ and becomes converted to the egalitarian message of Christianity; off set, the actor gets kidnapped by Communists, who indoctrinate him against the film industry’s bourgeois owners. As in the case of Dalton Trumbo, who had ghost-written the screenplay for Kubrick’s Spartacus to undermine the blacklist, it was through Christian imagery (Spartacus, a slave who leads a revolt against the Roman empire, ends up being nailed to a cross) that subversive ideas could infiltrate the power structure. But in the Coen Brother’s film, these democratic “truths” seem to be a decoy. The real protagonist of Hail, Ceasar! is Josh Brolin’s character, a boorish yet sincere industry rep whose Catholic faith convinces him not to leave the difficult job of helping run Capitol Pictures—a name which seems to be a bit on the nose, given the Cold War themes we’ve been discussing. Belief in spiritual or political transformations in Hail, Ceaser! are moral cul de sacs; the only salvation, or truth to be found is in carrying out one’s personal duties, in doing what one knows is right, rather than hoping to ascend to the clouds. Like the Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, he accepts his calling of preserving the Empire, in spite of the many challenges from the lower orders of life, and the strange new ideas of dissident philosophies.