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Film Review: Wonder Woman 1984

December 27, 2020 Leave a comment

Wonder Woman 1984 (2020; Directed by Patty Jenkins)

Here at the end of 2020, the popularly-anointed Worst Year Ever (Not Inclusive of 1618 to 1648, 1914 to 1918, or 1939 to 1945), comes one of the year’s biggest and most anticipated Hollywood blockbuster movies. As befits a pandemic-altered socio-economic and pop-cultural reality, most of the viewers of Patty Jenkins’ sequel to her surprising triumphant 2017 Wonder Woman will watch it not in packed multiplex theatres (remember those? Memories may soon be all you have of them) on its (COVID-delayed) opening weekend, but through their choice of streaming video platforms in the possibly-strained comfort of their own homes. And these viewers will watch as in the climax of Wonder Woman 1984, a maniacal con-artist businessman wields the power and the public influence of the United States Presidency to promise to grant the deepest wish of every person in the world (while a extracting self-serving cost of his own) as the titular naturally physically and morally superior superheroine counter-broadcasts via her Lasso of Truth that, no, actually, better things aren’t possible and the world should unite and hold hands to renounce the things that they really want to improve their lives because the way things were was just fine, really, and that’s The Truth. And then everyone gets together and sings “Imagine” together. Okay, that last thing doesn’t happen in the movie, but only because it already did in real life and people didn’t much like it.

For those who need a “thumbs up, thumbs down” recommendation/non-recommendation from their film criticism… well, I can’t fathom what you’re doing here. But know that Wonder Woman 1984 is not the movie Wonder Woman was (maybe Wonder Woman itself wasn’t the movie Wonder Woman “was”, if we’re being brutally but cryptically honest), although Jenkins (who besides directing, also produces, co-wrote the story with Geoff Johns, and the screenplay with Johns and Dave Callaham) pulls out absolutely all the stops to up the ante on the textual level of spectacle and on the subtextual level of themes and ideas. Wonder Woman 1984 clocks in at 2.5 hours and is both entirely too long and filled to the brim with stuff for that whole running time. It boasts at least three or four delightfully, epically nonsensical action sequences, a core emotional subplot whose main conceit kicks the concept of consent under a couch never to be seen again, one inconsistent villain and one astoundingly over-the-top one, and so very many strange and mind-scrambling boomeranging ideas and political implications. Critical video essayist Jack Saint livetweeted during his viewing that Wonder Woman 1984 is “ideologically buck wild” and yeah, that about sums it up. Spoilers incoming.

Wonder Woman 1984 is a direct-ish sequel to the previous World War One-era film, albeit with nearly seven decades elapsed. The titular hero’s alter-ego Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) hasn’t aged a day in those intervening years and works as an archaeologist at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., but otherwise lives a solitary existence. As Jenkins depicts mostly wordlessly with veteran visual storytelling, Diana still mourns the first man she ever met and the last man she ever loved, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), who sacrificed his life to save many others at the climax of the 2017 film. She still steps out in her glittering red, blue, and gold battle armour to foil evildoers and protect the innocent, including in a stupendously corny early fight sequence (surely purposely so) set in a gaudily-coloured multi-level shopping mall (Stranger Things did it better and with moodier and more interesting cinematography, I can’t believe I’m able to say). The thieves she subdues in this scene were robbing the secret black-market antiquities trade running out of a jewelry storefront (be suspicious the next time you pass a Pandora, they might be storing Sumerian amulets in the stock room), and one mysterious artifact lands on the desk of Diana’s Smithsonian colleague Barbara Ann Minerva (Kristen Wiig).

Barbara is a bespectacled, mousily-dressed, socially awkward academic whose initial attempts to befriend the glamourous and confident Diana are rebuffed but then reciprocated because of… pity? Loneliness and genuine desire for connection? No, probably just to keep an eye on the aforementioned “Dreamstone”, which Diana initially takes to be a chintzy fake but soon suspects to be more when it grants her deepest expressed desire: the return of Steve Trevor. Her long-dead boyfriend’s essence (I guess?) animates the body of some chiseled Georgetown yuppy (Kristoffer Polaha) but appears as Pine to her. It’s complicated and more than a little stupid, but it’s a threadbare excuse to retrieve Gadot and Pine’s chemistry from the first film. That spark between these performers (plenty of fish-out-of-water humour with Diana introducing Steve to seven decades of technological and cultural development, and also Chris Pine rocks a fanny pack) is supposed to make us forget that Diana is having her way romantically and sexually with the possessed body of a man who explicitly has not consented to it. It won’t be the last time that something in Wonder Woman 1984 becomes problematic and troubling with a moment’s thought. But they fly through Fourth of July fireworks in an invisible jet and Hans Zimmer’s swelling score tells us it’s A Wondrous Moment, so don’t you just love them together? PAY NO ATTENTION TO THE WEIRD MIND RAPE.

The Dreamstone spin-off problems soon accelerate. Barbara casually wishes that she possessed Diana’s strength and appeal, which makes her not only instantly more attractive to men but increasingly, superhumanly powerful and eventually into a cast member of the 2019 Cats movie (if Taylor Swift couldn’t resist, then it must be every woman’s most fervent wish, I think we can all agree). One male suitor is the aforementioned business grifter Maxwell Lord (a delirious cornpone Pedro Pascal), who pretends to be considering donating some of his purportedly vast wealth to the Smithsonian and then semi-seduces Barbara in order to obtain the Dreamstone and use it to make himself a human Dreamstone who can grant any one wish in exchange for whatever he wants from the wishmaker. He quickly employs this monkey’s paw wish-fulfilling technique to take his teetering con of an oil venture from an empty-shell corporate Potemkin village to a powerful multinational cornering global oil reserves, then to destabilize the Middle East and set the U.S. and the Soviet Union on a precipitous course to nuclear war, all to meet an insatiable need for more, more, more, and above all to impress his young son Alistair (Lucian Perez). He worries that Alistair sees him as a loser because his business had been failing, but he’s a little kid and you’re his dad, just buy him a Cabbage Patch Kid and he’ll worship you. No need to catalyze Armageddon here, Mando.

Wonder Woman and her bodysnatching boyfriend pursue Max Lord first to Egypt, where he restores a medieval caliphate in exchange for some security goons and a gigantic “Divine Wall” sprouts up around Cairo for some reason (I guess it’s Politically Applicable, but it’s just splashed on the wall willy-nilly by this point). There’s then a showpiece desert highway chase scene that, plot-wise, only exists so that Diana and Lord can exchange two lines of dialogue and she can realize that he’s now the Wishmaster. It does also demonstrate that Diana’s superpowers are ebbing away due to her cursed wish to bring Steve back, although whether they’re going specifically to Barbara/Cheetah or just away into the ether is not exactly clear. But most notably, the highway sequence includes a closing action beat of Wonder Woman saving a pair of local Arab children playing soccer in the road (by improbably lassoing and riding a bazooka shell to speed up). This presents in the text as a further instance of Diana’s moral instinct to safeguard rather than to destroy: the mall scene sees her using non-lethal force against the robbers and balletically saving numerous children in harm’s way, and she even instructs Steve not to use a gun on Max Lord’s security detail later on, as “it’s not their fault” they’re resisting them. But it’s hard not to register that the Israeli Gal Gadot infamously took to social media in 2014 to defend a bombing campaign in Gaza by her former comrades in the IDF that claimed the lives of some Palestinian kids playing soccer, among other casualties. Talk about wish fulfilment. If it’s not quite on the level of notorious HUAC snitch Elia Kazan artistically defending informing in On The Waterfront, it’s as close as we’re likely to get in the DC Extended Universe anyway.

I suppose the ideological buck wildness of Wonder Woman 1984 ought to be more fully addressed from here on in. To start with, a good deal of this movie, especially as regards Wiig’s character, is clearly conceived of from a third-wave feminist point of view, proceeding from the Jenkins’ first film. Most of Barbara’s arc is concerned with the terms of her femininity, both as she regards it and as others (especially men but also desirous high-status women like Diana) regard it. She’s awkward and insecure and ignored by everyone until the Dreamstone wish flips everything for her like she’s Rachael Leigh Cook in She’s All That, and she’s noticed by women and lusted after by men. Barbara revels in this newfound power, but the filmic text makes it clear that she takes it too far, especially when she practically kills a drunk who tries twice to assault her and then when she turns on Diana and wishes to Max Lord for total dominance over her friend-then-rival and everyone else, as well as for some cute cat ears (which shouldn’t work because she already made a wish and others who attempt a second wish with Lord can’t be granted it, but like I said, a bit inconsistent). I have no doubt that this is a critique of gender roles and power imbalances even within gendered femininity, as far as it goes, and the stark difference in the gaze of Jenkins’ camera when compared to that of DCEU alpha male (and co-producer of this movie) Zack Snyder gives this the space to actually function. Seriously but tangentially, if film studies educators want to use contemporary examples to teach the concept of the male gaze, simply juxtapose how Jenkins shoots Gadot in her Wonder Woman movies to how Snyder shoots her in Justice League. Jenkins thinks much more about clothes than what’s under them, to put it succinctly.

Barbara’s subplot carries the feminist weight in this film in the way that Diana’s negotiation with a patriarchal Edwardian world did in the first film, because in 1984 Diana is fully on her shit of defining herself through a man. In Wonder Woman, Diana’s romance with Steve was vitally important on an emotional level but most of all was key to her engagement with humanity and her choice to defend what’s good in it from war and imperialism and patriarchal chauvinism and whatever else you got, she’ll take it all on like machine gun bursts to her shield. That Diana is literally fine with hijacking another man’s body to spend time with Steve Trevor again is, perhaps, intentional in underlining how she’s sacrificing the powers that give her the moral high-ground to defend the spark of joy in human civilization from dark threats in order to satisfy her needs, but likely it’s less than that. When they face the hard reality that Steve will have to go away again so that she can save the world, it’s the clear emotional high point of Wonder Woman 1984, its closest equivalent to the transcendent No Man’s Land sequence in the 2017 film, especially when a recollection of his love of flight inspires her to develop a new ability to the strains of Zimmer’s shameless heart-tugging score.

Indeed, the hard choice that Diana makes between what she wants and what’s better for the world at large, between clinging to her deepest wish and renouncing it for the greater good, between self-interested individualism and the deferred advantages of collective action, is the central thematic idea of Wonder Woman 1984. Pascal’s Max Lord is a completely unsubtle commentary on Donald Trump’s wish-fulfillment fantasy-world of self-serving demagoguery and resulting concentration of wealth and power: he extols “the power of positive thinking” to a fellow power-broker at one point (Trump went to Norman Vincent Peale’s church in his youth and the preacher’s self-help dogma suffuses his thinking, rhetoric, and behaviour), and Jenkins has Pascal look straight into the camera while stood at a podium in front of the White House logo and say, “Why not more?” (although even this superhero movie villain is more human and sympathetic than the soon-to-be-ex-President; can you imagine Donald Trump renouncing his horrid ways to earn the love and respect of his coked-up asswipe of a son and heir? Ivanka, maybe.) Max Lord represents, as Trump does, the unrestrained desiring id of America-fronted global capitalism, the insatiable acquisitive and expansionary impulse that was ascendant in 1980s America and, in this comic-book fantasy as in our comic-book reality, directly leads to widespread catastrophic social collapse (the Dreamstone has done this before, Barbara discovers and shares with Diana; in one case, it is held by the last Roman emperor in 476, although when Diana states that it causes societies to collapse “without a trace as to why”, I feel like slipping her a copy of Gibbon).

Wonder Woman in her golden armour with her golden rope of Truth opposes this kingdom of lies, and exhorts the people of the world not to wish for improvement of personal conditions but to renounce the individualized selfishness encouraged and fed on by capitalist leeches like Lord for the greater good of shared prosperity. She’s a Bernie girl, in other words, or more likely an Elizabeth Warren stan. But it isn’t hard to understand Diana’s defence of a restored collectivist status quo as a centrist, back-to-normal impulse divorced from a recognition of the intractable problems of the modern world under American capitalist hegemony that Lord’s careless wish-granting (not wholly unlike Trump’s mean-spirited fabulist fancies) disrupted, although far from productively. Wonder Woman 1984 concludes on a perfect note for the incoming Joe Biden Administration, in other words. The vast, interconnected web of injustice and grievance and socioeconomic inequality will not be addressed or redressed (seriously, there’s a gobsmacking anti-Irish bigotry moment in one of the “wishes around the world” montages I could barely believe I was watching in 2020), but a feel-good note of unity will be struck even as America and the world sinks from fatal wounds to its hull that will not even be attempted to be mended. And the power of your morally-superior and supremely powerful SuperMommy will protect you from all the scary stuff in the world. So don’t you worry your little heads about it, and certainly do not even think about imagining or much less attempting to build anything better.

Have I become more witheringly cynical about the thematic messaging of the Wonder Woman franchise in the past three years, or has Wonder Woman‘s thematic message done so? It quietly pains me to write and think this way about Patty Jenkins’ work here on behalf of hegemonic American ideology when the muscular, empathetic humanism of the 2017 film left such a warm glow. The literate mind was ready to poke and prod at the 1984 in the film’s title for intertextual echoes of George Orwell’s seminal dystopia of authoritarianism, but if the Wonder Woman sequel reflects that novel at all, it’s through a mirror darkly. It’s a filmic text of flagging American exceptionalism, besieged from within more than from without but maintaining its goosestepping stride in propaganda spheres.

I haven’t yet mentioned that Wonder Woman 1984 opens with a flashback to Diana’s youth on the verdant Mediterranean Amazon paradise of Themyscira, when she competes as a child against grown women in an Olympics-style cross-country obstacle course and race but is pulled aside before the finish by her warrior aunt Antiope (Robin Wright) to be taught a lesson for taking a shortcut. It’s a visual parable of fairness, of not taking shortcuts to success in the way sold by fictional and real conmen like Max Lord and Donald Trump, the way celebrated as foundational to the American character; whatever lingering Protestant-ethic platitudes about hard work might yet be encountered in the wild, the proudest way to get ahead in the United States of America is and always has been to slip your hand into your neighbour’s pocket. This message gets muddled by the film’s climax, indeed very much due to the film’s end. Do Jenkins et. al. mean to advance a collectivist message in Diana’s final confrontation with Lord? I think they certainly do. But precisely because Wonder Woman 1984 invokes so many touchstones of our political moment and they prove far too complex, heavy, and potent for it, this movie fails as liberal political messaging and, not unrelatedly, largely fails as entertainment, too. A damn shame.

Categories: Comics, Film, Politics, Reviews

Film Review: Mank

December 7, 2020 Leave a comment

Mank (2020; Directed by David Fincher)

Let’s start with this so there’s no misunderstandings: Citizen Kane is a great movie. Perhaps the greatest movie. Not only is it a technical marvel with trailblazing cinematic language at least 20 years ahead of its time, it’s emotionally involving, thematically rich, and often pretty funny. Maybe this doesn’t need to be stated so plainly seeing as nearly eighty years of film history discourse and scholarship has repeatedly emphasized this point, but with our online hot-take culture often tipping into the blithely contrarian and with laudable efforts to expand and diversify the cinematic canon beyond white male auteurs occasionally scything at the tallest grasses with a wider and more indiscriminate sweep, the primacy of Orson Welles’ masterpiece atop at the pyramid of American filmmaking has sometimes been challenged. Certainly, I’ve read criticism from writers I respect who found that the movie left them cold, although I’m at pains to recall who they are at the moment. But for the purposes of this essay, please proceed with the shared assumption that Citizen Kane indubitably slaps.

Additionally, it apparently needs stating with authority that although film is a collaborative medium and many creative people contribute to the artistic success or failure of any given movie, the director is a very important player in any movie. Perhaps the most important. Again, our post-postmodern discourse often seeks to challenge grand epistemological paradigms like auteur theory (a Great Man-style critical framework which has raised Welles, especially in consideration of his later years, above almost all other filmmakers in the cinematic pantheon over the years) and there are welcome reasons to do so in terms of movie-making, but it would be absurd to watch a movie like Citizen Kane and minimize the contribution of the person calling the shots behind the camera and working with DoP Gregg Toland on the brilliant cinematography and giving one of the great performances of the Hollywood Golden Age in the lead and, yes, co-shaping the script with screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. Yes, the great film critic Pauline Kael revivified long-rumoured allegations in her 1971 long essay in The New Yorker “Raising Kane” (you can read the whole thing if you like, or just the Wikipedia article) that Mankiewicz was the true driving force behind the screenplay and that Welles stole much of the credit for Mankiewicz’s genius. But those assertions and the scholarship Kael based them on (she famously didn’t even interview Welles for “Raising Kane”) have been widely discredited since then with Welles’ documented screenplay contributions having come to light. Citizen Kane belongs to a lot of talented people, but it belongs to Orson Welles most firmly.

You don’t necessarily need to know all of this or have read the book-length “Raising Kane” in order to watch and understand David Fincher’s biographical drama of Mankiewicz, Mank. You don’t even need to have watched Citizen Kane for Mank to make sense, although you will certainly note and appreciate and think further about the visual and thematic echoes built into Fincher’s film if you have (also Citizen Kane rules, so go watch it). But Mank is founded on the core premise of Kael’s “Raising Kane” revisionism, that the swanning upstart Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke but barely in the film) maximized his credit for the script and minimized that of the titular veteran Hollywood writer, excoriating wit, and self-immolating alcoholic, played by Gary Oldman.

Fincher’s late father Jack, an underappreciated screenwriter in his own right, no doubt identified more than a kernel of his own struggles in the figure of Mank, and the Kaelian view of Kane‘s genesis forms the backbone of his script. Fincher fils was originally planning to make Mank at the end of the 1990s while Fincher père was still alive; he made Fight Club instead, which proved a mixed blessing for film and cultural history. In completing and releasing the film 17 years after his father’s death, Fincher adds another layer of meaning to its layered reflexivity: a transmuted tribute to his father through the complex figure of Mankiewicz in a reflection of how Kane was a literary-level critique of newspaper magnate and film producer William Randolph Hearst (played in Mank by Charles Dance) through its titular character Charles Foster Kane but also served as a larger critique of the American Dream and as an even larger critique of the hubris of creative power. Mank is, even more than that, yet another in the seemingly endless litany of Hollywood movies about Hollywood, but also challenges and problematizes the dream factory’s self-conceptions as well as the characterization of their ideological cultural project and inherent politics by their perceived opponents. Even in a cinematic calendar year which was not profoundly upended and greatly diminished by a worldwide pandemic, Mank (released to Netflix and a limited theatrical run, though they all are in 2020) would be a prime Oscar contender.

Mank unfolds in intercutting between two parallel temporal narrative lines about key junctures in Herman J. Mankiewicz’s life, mirroring the temporal jumps in the narrative of Citizen Kane. In 1940, as Mank recovers from a broken leg suffered in a car accident in a ranch-house in the Mojave Desert near Victorville, California, he hashes out the screenplay that will become Citizen Kane, clashing and bonding with his English amanuensis Rita (Lily Collins) as she takes down his thoughts for the story and dealing with the persistent alcoholism that would claim his life a decade and a half later but that was also vitally entwined with his creative process. Mank is also beset by pressure to complete the work from Welles and his producer John Houseman (a key source for Kael’s claims about the script in “Raising Kane”, Houseman broke with his collaborator Welles over the credit controversy) as well as warnings from figures in his life like his movie executive brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) that Kane is too identifiably an artistic hit-job on the still-powerful Hearst and that Mank should be ready for blowback because of it.

In the other narrative thread, Mank’s time in Hollywood of the 1930s is explored: his in-house writer work for Paramount and MGM, his interactions with Studio Era legends like David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), his relationship with his long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton), his entry into the social circle of the fabulously wealthy Hearst at the country estate of San Simeon (the model for Xanadu in Kane) as a kind of Depression-era iteration of Lear’s Fool and his friendship with Hearst’s paramour and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and most significantly his principled political struggles and eventual break with these Hollywood establishment figures over their funding, lobbying, and propaganda work on behalf of Republican candidate Frank Merriam in the 1934 California gubernatorial election against Democratic candidate, socialist activist, and muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (played in a brief rally speech cameo by Bill Nye).

Mank is a David Fincher film par excellence in terms of its visual, linguistic, and thematic density. Probably only Zodiac (still his masterpiece and my favourite film of his, for what it’s worth) is in the same realm of complexity, although that earlier serial killer drama is far more ambiguous than Mank. The two narrative threads cross and knot with each other time and again, creating ripples and echoes with the legendary film that lies past the finish line of this story, but it’s made highly evident that the movie considers that Mank’s guilt and resentment over Hearst and Mayer and Thalberg working and spending to defeat Sinclair in 1934 (at a terrible cost to at least one of his likewise guilt-ridden colleagues who aided in the effort) intensified his alcoholism, damaged his marriage, made him persona non grata in the studio system, and inspired him to go at Hearst and the whole rotten edifice of the American ruling elite in Citizen Kane (another echo, this time of Sinclair’s own anti-corruption work in novels like The Jungle and Oil!). If it wins nothing else on Oscar Night (whatever remotely-filmed version of that we end up getting in a few months), Mank seems almost a shoe-in for a screenplay statuette for the late Jack Fincher (who retains sole credit even though his son has admitted to changes having been made the original drafts, to make it less anti-Welles among other things). Dense and complex, highly engaged in the political and cultural currents of its time, full of thematic echoes and callbacks and memorable lines and sharp wit, with the added Hollywood catnip of a feel-good posthumous triumph for an underdog (for Jack Fincher out of text and for Herman Mankiewicz in it). If you’re going to make a movie about one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters, you’d best have a great screenplay, and Mank absolutely does.

This is not to say that the acting isn’t also excellent (Oldman is a problematic old-school thesp in many ways but he’s always great onscreen, and Seyfried has never been as striking as she is here) or that Fincher’s technical re-creation of the black-and-white filmmaking techniques of the 1930s and 1940s isn’t impeccable in his normal perfectionist way (Seyfried had to repeat one take 200 times, and Mank’s climactic drunken crashing of a San Simeon costume party took 100 tries). Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography aims for the chiaroscuro deep focus Toland achieved in Kane and that was so common in German Expressionism-influenced Hollywood film noir of that era, and even the sound design and editing revives the classic sonic feel of films of the time (an effect which has been alternately greeted as welcome and warm and criticized as “unbearable” in its analog mono-ness).

Mank is a beautiful and deep film but it’s also a very contrasting and maybe a not altogether great one. It has so much to say about Hollywood and American culture and society and politics that it’s inevitable that not all of it will land or sink in. It also takes great pains to relate and apply these ideas and undercurrents to the present moment, particularly in dealing with the collusion of persuasive visual media producers (like Hollywood studios then or cable news and Silicon Valley social media now) and big dark money to demonize and otherize political movements and candidates preaching socioeconomic equality, usually at the expense of the Democrats and to the benefit of the Republicans. One San Simeon soirée falls into a protracted discussion of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party takeover of Germany that feels a little too much like an on-point comparison to the rise of a more authoritarian Right in our era even as it does productively make the historically obvious but still often-missed point that even nominally liberal elites (even economically successful Jewish-Americans like Thalberg and Mayer who would be targets of the Nazis’ anti-Semitic policies) will side with conservatives and even hardcore authoritarians if it means keeping the Left at bay and preserving their own wealth and power from redistributive justice (“What’s a ‘concentration camp’?” asks the buffoonishly obsequious Mayer). Conservatives sell many fever-dream fantasies to their increasingly unruly rabble of suggestible supporters (they always think they can control them and they never can, in the 1930s or in 2020), but one of them is that Hollywood is a bastion of outright Marxism on the Left, which is laughable to anyone who knows even half a thing about corporatized Hollywood but receives a firmer artistic rebuke through the period frame of Mank.

The Merriam/Sinclair election subplot and wider political currents of the film feel relevant to the American moment, yes, but are ultimately subsumed to servicing Mank’s character arc and the movie’s larger themes. Not to go all Tyrion Lannister in the Game of Thrones finale on you all here (nobody ever wanted that), but Mank is a movie about stories. Mankiewicz is a storyteller above all, and understands and frequently wields their power in his work for the studios, in his conversations with Hollywood suits and with Hearst and his circle at San Simeon, and in opposing the fake-newsreel short films that MGM produces to attack Sinclair using backlot sets and actors. It’s mentioned that Joseph Goebbels had Mankiewicz-penned flicks banned from Germany, and obvious anti-Semitism aside it can be understood that the Minister of Propaganda knew seductive stories when he saw them. Citizen Kane is likewise obsessed with stories: the larger story of Charles Foster Kane as cobbled together from the fragments of his life gleaned from the witnesses to it, the famous evocative vignette told by Kane’s right-hand man Bernstein about a girl in white with a parasol he glimpsed on a ferry that carries a part of the figurative weight of the movie’s intense longing and romantic dissatisfaction, Kane’s famous last word as a poetic microstory that romanticizes his idyllic childhood, the entire film as a story about Hearst as a story about America. Stories tell truths, but stories also lie. Both kinds of stories have effects and consequences, regardless of their honesty or dishonesty, their authenticity or inauthenticity.

What holds Mank back from absolute greatness, just maybe, is that it’s ultimately a lie. In minimizing Welles’s role and maximizing Mankiewicz’s role in raising Kane, it privileges one kind of story for another. It has reasons for doing so, and some of those reasons are obviously personal, in the case of both Finchers. Perhaps, as was pointed out by Dan O’Sullivan, the brilliance of the 24-year-old wunderkind Orson Welles is simply too impossibly grandiose to be convincing or even conceivable, in his time or in our skeptical and propagandistic misinformation-strewn one (more likely the predicted character-assassination campaign against Welles from the Hearst press in revenge for Citizen Kane dug in more deeply and enduringly than we might like to imagine). Stories can be especially dangerous when we choose not to doubt them enough, and we should doubt such tales of meteoric ascents and prodigious brilliance, but likewise we should be skeptical of the underdog narrative privileged over it of an irascible alcoholic underappreciated genius robbed of his rightful place in history being artistically restored to it.

I could spend another 2500 words analyzing only the juxtaposing stories told at San Simeon in Mank‘s climactic 1930s sequence: first Mank’s wildly inebriated and fantastical but searingly personal drunken pitch for a modern screen retelling of Don Quixote with Hearst as the mad nobleman tilting at windmills, Davies as a beautiful but naive Dulcinea, and Mayer as a bowing, scraping courtier take on the peasant squire Sancho Panza, followed and upended by Hearst’s calm and assured telling to Mank of the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, in which the monkey in his fez and vest thinks himself as exerting true control over the man who is the performing animal’s master, that it is not the organ grinder but the monkey who calls the tune. But in this sequence and indeed in Mank as a whole, stories are weapons, blunt instruments of persuasion and power and subtler knives of manipulation and control. They are how we order our lives and identities and societies but they elude our direction and undermine our intent as well. We are wise to doubt their veracity but unwise to doubt their strength.

Categories: Film, History, Politics, Reviews