David Fincher’s ‘Mank’ Brings Old Hollywood Thrills — and Eerie Political Chills
The first surprise was that David Fincher, Hollywood’s master-influencer of stylish, impeccably-designed thrillers, was making a movie about… the writing of a screenplay. A jarring match-up — even if the screenplay in question is Citizen Kane, and even if the debate over Kane’s authorship, in which Orson Welles’ contribution became subject to question, is storied and vibrant enough, its relationship to Hollywood history robust enough, to merit a movie. The pairing of director and subject seemed curious: a maybe-promising prospect with a potential dash of latent misfire.
The movie itself, Mank — which will receive a limited theatrical release on Friday, followed by a Netflix streaming release on December 4th — is the second, greater surprise, in large part because of its successes. Mank is Fincher’s eleventh feature, the first since Gone Girl’s rigorous, blackly comic bloodletting in 2014. Though the horizons of Fincher’s art have always been broader than they at first appear — this isn’t even the intensively modern director’s first period picture — Mank is somewhat unnerving in its sincerity and topical breadth, its tense mingling of history and speculation, its ironically pointed attitude toward the Hollywood studio system. This last point only gains more traction and intrigue in light of this movie being, from the outset, a production of Netflix International Pictures, a fact somehow inseparable from the film’s congealed rash of ideas. Commerce, art, period politics: It’s all here. Among Fincher die-hards, the result will probably bemuse some, bore many, and thrill a relative but hearty minority. Count me in the minority.
Mank stars an exceptionally loose and self-torturous Gary Oldman as the soggy, bedridden hero of the title, a man who, as of the movie’s 1940 frame narrative, has a major screenplay to finish writing and a barrel of demons to contend with in the meantime. The story goes that the wunderkind Welles, only 25 or so years old, has just been given carte blanche by RKO Pictures to make his first movie — any movie, about anything, with anyone he wants. So he chooses the washed-up, alcoholic, gambling-addicted Herman J. Mankiewicz: the journalist, critic, and playwright-turned-studio man whose Hollywood ties have, by this time, withered. A man who, on Welles’ command, can only be trusted to pull off this feat if he’s been hidden away at the North Verde Ranch in Victorville, California, to complete the mammoth first draft.
Mank has been assigned a trio of overseers: caretaker Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and actor-producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), whose main job is to keep Mank dry. This is a tough enough task that Houseman sets Mank up with a cache of sedatives in alcohol bottles. Mank is on deadline: First he’s given 90 days, then 60, to pop this out. But as Fincher’s film allows it to play out, the time nearly evaporates. It’s not so long before, seemingly all of a sudden, the embattled Mank has only two weeks left to make sense of a draft that’s as brilliant as it is overlong, unconventional, and — given who everyone rightly presumes it to be about — dangerous.
That last part, the danger, is what gives Mank some, only some, of the tingly chaos you’d expect of a Fincher movie. The threat isn’t exactly comparable to the Zodiac killer; it’s definitely no Amazing Amy (who is?). But what’s clear from the outset is that there’s a great risk being taken in the writing of Welles’ movie. There isn’t a soul in the room who doesn’t know that “Kane” is a stand-in for media titan William Randolph Hearst. A few people — including Mank’s brother, the soon-to-be-legendary writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey) — even try to lure Herman ashore with safer projects, easier money. One of Mank’s key swerves is in fact its willingness to give credence to the danger of that operation. And it splits itself nearly in two to do so, with the Victorville frame narrative serving as but a backbone for a conflict-ridden, vibrant tour of the years leading up to it.
The real meat of Mank isn’t in the writing of Citizen Kane, in other words, but in its detailing of the ideas and experiences, the intellectual wrestling and brewing antagonisms, that Mank will metastasize in his behemoth script. It’s not so unusual for a film hovering anywhere near the biopic genre to make legible connections between the ideals of its hero and the experiences that shaped those ideals. But in Mank, the extensive flashbacks to the 1930s are so dominant that they nearly serve as an alternate present tense. Here, Herman’s studio past — his ties to the likes of actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), studio giant Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and Hearst himself (Charles Dance) — are rife with a sense of contingency, at times even despair. The past, in this movie, surpasses its function as mere explanation for its hero’s present. Hollywood of the 1930s emerges, instead, as the pulpy, stirring heart of this story.
And the story this movie tells is a tough and disconcertingly relevant one. We watch as the beleaguered Mank, a wry and magnetic wit, unassumingly talks himself into the steady company of Davies, thus quickly becoming a regular guest of Hearst — Davies’ partner — at a time when the media magnate has made serious headway into the talking-picture business. We and Mank soon learn what propels Hearst’s interest. In a word: power. And, peering over Mank’s shoulder through it all, we come to see Mayer as the Sancho to Hearst’s Quixote.
Through lively and extensive dinner scenes and walk-and-talks and vigorous arguments, Mank encourages us to witness the ways that Hearst has begun to wield Hollywood as the political vehicle that, in Mank’s gimlet-eyed view, it practically begged to become — a way of intervening on socialist politics (represented here by the political campaign of Upton Sinclair). Hearst has already played a direct hand in national politics by way of the Roosevelt White House. Thus his influence and reach grow terrifying — if quietly so. News from overseas portends great trouble from Germany; war, a crippled economy, and the increased susceptibility of the public to the power of images hobble and shape citizens’ overall impression of the state of the world. And Mank, court jester though he may seem when hanging out at Hearst’s San Simeon palace, seems to see all of it coming.
That, friends, is the magic of the movies. As Mank puts it more than once, our willingness to suspend our belief at the door — to believe in King Kong towering the heights of the Empire State Building when those silver-screen images are flickering above our heads (or from our TV screens) — is what keeps Hollywood in business and, simultaneously, risks making sitting ducks of us all. One of the surprising subjects of Mank is thus its insistence on the role of movies in shaping public understanding, an idea that matters very much to the Mank Fincher has dreamed up in this movie. It’s a well-known story, as essential to the myth of Herman Mankiewicz as it is to the Hollywood studio system of the 1930s, that Mank, who was at one point a recruiter of writers into this thankless machine, sent then up-and-comer (now legend) Ben Hecht a telegram that read: “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” And then: “Don’t let this get around.” The Hollywood of Fincher’s Mank is in fact not quite a haven of idiots; one triumph of the movie, however, is that you see how Mank got there. You also grow to understand that Mank’s Hollywood was a repository of dangerously entangled, rich, shameless people. Effective people. Powerful people.
Mank doesn’t tell us why Welles chooses Mank, of all men, to script his Hollywood debut. The movie is in fact tellingly scant on impressions of Welles — though, when he appears, as played by Tom Burke, the movie makes it count. But there’s an idea that unites these men: the idea of Hollywood’s allure, its power to lure men like Mank, Welles, and countless others into the dream factory, where what awaits are not big chances at challenging ideas and personal art, but rather, a monied, politicized, well-run machine. It’s in the context of all of this that the filmmaking goodies here — the use of old-school mono sound; the widescreen black-and-white images; expressionistic, smoky silhouettes; Big Acting; Thirties-appropriate wit in the writing — feel not only playful, but gilded, knowing, and pleasurably awry. Fincher hasn’t quite made a genuine imitation of a 1930s picture. Fincher can hop genres, but he can never abandon his masterfully clinical visual stamps, which include all of the playful, imitation-film cigarette burns and graininess mussing the hair of the movie’s glossy digital images. He has instead used that acute visual cynicism of his to deliver something too sticky and uncomfortable to be straightforward nostalgia. That’s a credit to his intentions here, frankly, given that he’s of the nostalgic, movie-obsessive, New Hollywood-weaned auteur generation.
But the movie is fun, and its nostalgia is pleasurable, if you allow it to be. It’s something of an uphill battle at first. The opening 30 or so minutes risk confusion and disorientation, in scenes that don’t always hit the mark. Then Mank meets Davies, as if by chance, as she’s slow-burning at the stake between takes on a movie set. Seyfried isn’t an exact match for Davies, but she has great fun with Brooklyn-born actress’ slick accent and personality. Davies’ emphatic presence here is poignant to begin with; the character in Citizen Kane presumed to be based on her, who was money-hungry and talentless, ruined her real-life reputation — painful proof of Mank’s concern about silver screen fictions overtaking reality. Seyfried gives Davies a soul; Mank gives Seyfried just enough room to do so. Likewise, Hearst, Mayer, the brother Mankiewicz, and a gaggle of name-checked studio legends are all given real energy and life, in performances that are, to a person, tantalizing and memorable. There’s blood in the veins of these people, who just as easily could have become talky platforms for the movie’s ideas. Certainly, they’re all representative of what’s at stake here. But they’re fun to watch.
Which is a good thing for a movie that seems destined to generate — has in fact already generated — some suspicion. Again, there’s the problem of history. The debate over who “actually wrote” Citizen Kane dates back to at least Pauline Kael’s 1971 missive, originally published in the New Yorker, casting doubts as to Welles being the dominant author. It was heartily debunked. But a movie that pushes Mank’s efforts to the forefront and restricts Welles to a few pointed scenes, with a nod toward the revisions that the director would later make that doesn’t specify the extent of those revisions, might appear to be flirting with the murkier side of that debate.
Even this, as the movie explores it, isn’t so simple; if anything, the movie’s closing moments, which jump forward to the culminating Academy Award shared by both men for the script, wink at this very question. All of which is to say nothing of the fact that the Orson Welles of this movie bears a humorously cutting physical resemblance, not only to the real Welles, but to one David Fincher. And yet the script for Mank, which was originally written by Jack Fincher, the director’s father, makes it easier, in so many ways, to imagine that Fincher sees himself as more of a Mank. Heroically flawed, sure, but heroic, with his back against the wall and the studio system serving as the firing squad. If it’s the movie’s intention to undermine Welles’ role in the writing of his most timeless movie — a movie which, it can’t be forgotten, laid the thematic groundwork for Fincher’s own Social Network — it doesn’t quite succeed in that intention. I’m not convinced that it is one.
What Mank does more purposefully, and with greater vigor, is redirect our attention to the problem of movies, writ large, and what they do, and how they can be used. It’s the way that Fincher gets at this problem through knowing but plausible historical fiction, movie-nerd fanfic, that ultimately wins me over. And so does the irony of it all. Mank is what Fincher decided to make, finally, after his father’s script had languished in a drawer somewhere for years, when Netflix asked if he had any dream projects up his sleeve. In its production and conception, the film is intensely personal. For many, this — and the usual Fincher promises of estimable and enormously controlled production, surprising acting, and perfect images — may be the most interesting, indeed the only interesting, thing about it. But the rest of us are in for a wild ride, and an unexpected treat.