Mank is a Hollywood Send-Up and Take-Down All In One
In honor of Citizen Kane, let’s start at the end.
After delicately weaving together disparate timelines and pointedly limiting the screen-time of Orson Welles (as played by Tom Burke), Mank finishes with a flourish, finally putting the legendary director front-and-center for a perfectly choreographed double-dose of Hollywood gatekeeper-ism. Our disheveled, besotted hero, writer Herman J. Mankiewicz, stumbles liver-first into two immovable sources of power: one political, one artistic. Adapted from a decades-old script by his father, journalist Jack Fincher, and playfully allusive to its older source material, Citizen Kane, Mank is nonetheless a David Fincher film at its core, and all one needs to see why is this penultimate, intercutting sequence. The imposing institutions that loom around the towering figures of Welles and William Randolph Hearst are the same ones that the younger Fincher has been preoccupied with for the better part of a quarter-century; Mank is the story of one man, a Fincher stand-in, and his dazzling “fuck you” to those institutions, even as they steamrolled him into oblivion.
But let’s rewind. Nominally unspooling as the behind-the-scenes tale of one of the most famous movies in history, Mank reflects Fincher’s childhood fascination with movie mechanics. Though most directorial origin stories are apocryphal, the Bay Area director speaks of his with specificity and disarming simplicity. Describing a childhood experience watching a documentary about the making of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Fincher once noted that “the actual circus of it was invisible, as it should be, but in seeing that I became obsessed with the idea of "How?" It was the ultimate magic trick.”
In many ways, Mank celebrates that circus. And in typical Fincher style, it does it with unrivaled punctiliousness. Unfurling with digitally rendered reel change marks and playfully incorporating typewriter-clacked slug lines to mark jumps in time, Mank recreates the inner-workings of 1930s Hollywood in all its gall and glory - from the all-male, all-impudent writers’ room to the massive moving machine magic on set, right down to the megalomaniac-powered studios (behind-the-screen legends Louis B. Mayer, David O. Selznick, and Irving G. Thalberg - what was it about middle initials back then? - all make extended appearances).
But the real trick of Mank lies in its expansion of the narrative, all while never leaving its increasingly wizened, eponymous writer’s side. Jumping between Mank’s convalescence-filled drafting process in 1940 and his inebriated, insouciant tumble from Hollywood’s circles of power throughout the prior decade, Fincher simultaneously broadens and narrows his scope. Mank ties the writer’s troubles to his relationship with newspaper-magnate-turned-super-producer William Randolph Hearts, and particularly to the film industry’s intervention in the 1934 California gubernatorial election between incumbent Republican Frank Merriam and upstart socialist author Upton Sinclair (a blink-and-you-miss it appearance from Bill Nye). Mank touches on the awesome power and responsibility of filmmakers, the starry-eyed hypocrisy of the corporate powers that run Hollywood, and the toxic symbiosis between the political and cinematic ecosystems. But by keeping his camera on Mank’s shoulder, Fincher covers all this ground largely through one lens: the cost to one man of maintaining his integrity in an industry that rewards the opposite.
With a wink and a nod to audiences both young and old, Mank summarizes his writing process early in the film. “You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours,” he grumbles to his caretaker, an under-utilized Lily Collins. “All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” It’s an apt allusion not just to art of screenwriting, but to Fincher’s tendency to take liberty with the historical details, despite the precision he applies to his visuals. Welles himself sought great, capital T Truths, often at the expense of individual facts; it’s only fitting that in recounting the writing of his greatest movie, Mank takes significant artistic liberty - with Mank’s humanitarian and political activities, in particular - on the road to important truths, about both the man himself and the industry that nearly crushed him. It’s particularly difficult, though, to forgive Fincher these foibles, given the observation that Mank makes late in the movie: “We have to be vigilant. People are waiting in the dark, prepared to check their disbelief at the door. We have a huge responsibility.” He puts a finer point on it earlier, once again combining the politics and pictures: “the writer is more of a menace to the unsuspecting public than the party hack.”
Regardless of whether his dramatic license offends, it’s difficult to deny that Fincher effectively gets at the truth he sought - both that of a man and of an ever-changing but disturbingly immutable business. Mank romanticizes writers but not the act of writing; it stares in awe at The Movies with one eye while casting suspicion at the industry that created them with the other; and it reserves its outright disgust for the small, petty, powerful men behind the curtain. It’s dialogue is the best of the year, that dynamic blend of stylized realism and dramatic pitter-patter that only the movies can bring us. Amanda Seyfried is a perfect mess of contradictions as Marion Davies: confident yet vulnerable; free-wheeling but controlled; sarcastic and full of warmth. And the irony of it all, of course, is that this luxurious celebration-condemnation of the studio system was made possible by, of all companies, Netflix. But with all that 2020 has brought us, that feels less important than it might have a year ago. Mank is a Great Movie. Right now, that’s all that matters.