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Film Review: Mank

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
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