In a storied career of iconoclasm and working within a studio system, director David Fincher has remained chagrined over his inaugural experience as a filmmaker on Alien 3. In many ways, the experience shaped his point of view of Hollywood and commercial haranguing going forward. He’s a filmmaker who at once thumbs his nose at the establishment, at the corporate overlords whose penny-pinching meddles in his artistic mindscape, and also works with them. He’s aspirational about using big budgets that only big studios can afford to realize his relatively mass market vision. He’s subverting a system for his own means, working from within to produce great art for the masses willing to embrace his particular brand of darkness. Despite decades of labeling as a pure cynic and possibly a fascist (by the few who misread Fight Club in every way), he’s only a cynic by way of the adage “every cynic is a disappointed idealist.” He’s a progressive who speaks to us subliminally, not outwardly, and his latest picture Mank is both the greatest distillation of that philosophy and the most polemical Fincher has ever been on the dangers of capitalism, fascism, propaganda, and the levers of power across America.
Much has been made of Mank as a film inspired by Pauline Kael’s infamous “Raising Kane” article in the New Yorker. While it’s clear that may have been the spark, Fincher’s touch and his late father Jack’s screenplay (with assist by screenwriter Eric Roth) suggest their sights were set on far loftier goals than examining authorship and auteur theory with respect to one of the greatest films of all time. There was a battle for credit over the writing bonafides of one Citizen Kane, and such a battle between Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is shown briefly in the film’s final stanza as a means to an end. But it is not the end. That much is evident by the time Mank has produced 327 pages of an “airtight narrative,” and says “the rest is up to him.” Mank is more interested in the specter of 30’s newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and the apathy and garrulousness that often plagues so many progressive thinkers, people who could do more to change the status quo from within if they only gave a fit. Mank is only about the making of Citizen Kane insofar as Herman spends much of the “present” laid up in bed due to a broken leg, cranking out pages via demure assistant Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), playfully arguing with his “poor” wife (Tuppence Middleton), and reminiscing about a myriad of inspirations.
As the titular Mank, staff writer for MGM and court jester for the Hearst roundtable of friends and sycophants, Gary Oldman gives one of the best performances of his career. Contrary to what the cynical Film Twitter chorus might sing, his turn as Winston Churchill was one for the ages. Though I’m certain the statue will be reserved for a certain deserving late actor, Mank provides a good argument for a second Best Actor Oscar. Oldman inhabits the writer’s rabid wit, surly style, and sly charm with a gift for gab, surprising warmth, and a clear recognition of the man’s more-than-fortunate lot in life. His Herman Mankiewicz is a degenerate gambler and a drunk, a man beset by his own willingness to stumble through life, providing snarky commentary on fascism abroad and at home. Once welcomed into the fold of Hearst, MGM honcho L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and young producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, Ben’s son), he takes to undercutting the obtuse behavior of these moguls and others orbiting them, but otherwise resigns himself to being their sideshow act and friendly challenger to their craven rhetoric. It’s not until he’s privy to the depths of their meddling, from off-color throwaways by his friend Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) about Willie’s involvement in government to Mayer screwing over his own employees for a few bucks, that Herman realizes what has become of Hollywood and those running it. Mank the film is but a cascading series of past events that awaken Mank the man to the sins in his own industry, in his own country, in his self. These people of means laugh off Adolf Hitler, as if he were merely a distraction, and fully embrace the notion that muckraker and socialist gubernatorial nominee Upton Sinclair (an incredible cameo) is a Bolshevik devil coming for everyone’s hard-earned dollars. They’re a mirror of 2020’s paranoid, power-hungry Republicans who laugh off very real threats of right-wing extremism in favor of telling boogeyman stories about socialism around the corner.
The film’s political raison d’être isn’t simple nor obvious, and it occupies the intersection of business, politics, and journalism. Reflecting our current media calamity, Mank’s crisis of conscience reaches a breaking point when he stumbles upon an insidious arrangement between Hearst, Mayer, and Sinclair’s election rival, GOP figure Frank Mariam. Eschewing pure historical accuracy (which is meaningless in such a film), this plot development is fascinating for positing a hypothetical origin for modern American propaganda, as if we’re watching a mythical tale of foreshadowing for the century of political woes to come. And as cynical as Mank is about such woes, about who has power, who retains power, and the corrosive effects of those powerful interests pulling our strings, Fincher employs a subtle brand of sentimentality that is often seen but rarely heard associated with his work. From Seven to The Social Network to Gone Girl, there’s always been an underlying melancholy in his filmography, suggesting a longing for better times, for better people and better decisions to help shape our world for the future. But he knows as well as we do that we don’t live in that world, not most of the time anyway. That melancholy, that longing, often carries over to his characters and their relationships, bonds between friends that are frequently broken over spilled beans or philosophical differences, or simply a fork in the road. When Mank makes a fool of himself and Davies, the look of hurt on her face at a long table of their friends cuts deep, because we know how Mank feels about her, how he never wanted to hurt her. He also knows she’s part of the problem. This feeling is once more encapsulated in the evocative musical stylings of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, the two of them doing their damndest to convince us they’re the best composers of an entire generation.
Fincher has surrounded Oldman with his patented atypical ensemble, a hodgepodge of actors unexpected yet perfectly cast to the point you couldn’t imagine anyone else. Embodying the infamous Hearst with a calm that belies some malevolent intention, Dance puts his great screen voice to good use in a showstopper of a scene wherein he slowly walks Mank through the corridors of his San Simeon castle, delivering a parable about the “organ grinder’s monkey.” It’s a singular moment that buoys Mank’s decision to come and, though Dance isn’t in the film nearly enough to truly warrant it, makes a case for his name in the Best Supporting Actor race. A more convincing case can be found in Howard’s performance as Mayer, the film’s true villain. Another showstopper has Mayer walking alongside Mank and his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) through the MGM lot, on his way to deliver bad news to the poor souls that staff his studios and movies. Howard’s zest for smarm here is a sight to behold, speaking of “emotion” as if it were testosterone coursing through his veins. As Mank’s aforementioned brother and future Oscar winner, Pelphrey plays a young up-and-comer struggling to make a name for himself that isn’t tied to Mank. He’s trying to play ball with the powers that be and coming up short because that’s how they like it when a writer’s strike is underway. Seyfried is a dead-ringer for Davies, her wide eyes and bubbly zeal evoking the funny actress of old with aplomb, even if she’s not exactly the shoo-in for Best Supporting Actress so many believe.
During a walk-and-talk, Howard’s Mayer has a monologue about family and the “real magic of the movies,” an embellishment of everything he and MGM stand for at the height of the 1930’s studio system. All of it sounds nice until you peel it back to find something unsavory, a callous subverting of company mantras, the positive spin on business spiel unspun to reveal a nastiness underneath. It’s in this moment that as an audience we’re fully made aware of Fincher’s point of view on old Hollywood. No matter the classical black and white photography or the fake cigarette burns, Mank is not an ode to anything, except maybe Citizen Kane or his late father, nor is it longing for the way things were like so many Hollywood movies about Hollywood. It’s longing for what could be or could’ve been. Mank is about a man realizing his worth, realizing the mark he can leave on a movie that, in a perfect world, has the power to change the way people view those more powerful than themselves. It’s about a man attempting with his last career breath to change a system from within, much like the venerable filmmaker himself. This is a grand middle finger to corporate meddling, to American propaganda, and it’s the best movie of the year.
P.S. It’s also the best script of the year. Oh, this dialogue.
Currently streaming on Netflix