The latest from David Fincher demythologizes Hollywood’s poisonous past in capturing the creation of Citizen Kane
It boggles the mind that it was almost a decade ago that The Artist took home the 2012 Best Picture Oscar. Before it first premiered at Cannes that May, it was seen as a strange curiosity that replicated the form of silent classics of yesteryear. Later, it took Hollywood by storm as an awards-season juggernaut, fueled by a dangerously potent combination of nostalgia, humor, and reverence for its cinematic past. That same year, David Fincher released his adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo–a near polar opposite from the family-friendly Artist, rife with a complex, chilly mystery that, like the best Fincher films, picked at its audience’s moral scabs and hushed curiosities with its own perverse glee and impeccably-shot camerawork. While Dragon Tattoo garnered the same critical success as The Artist, the studio machinations that greenlit the film were less than pleased at their return on investment — and already-in-prep sequels vanished from studio offices almost overnight.
The same unabashed love for cinema’s past featured in The Artist is undercut with bitter disdain for the forces behind filmmaking throughout Fincher’s latest film Mank, a biopic of prolific Golden-Era screenwriter Herman J. Mankewicz. As he feverishly writes the script for what would become Citizen Kane, Mank (Gary Oldman) reflects on his fall from the glitzy grace of studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and news magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) amidst the clash of social and political ideals of the 1934 California Gubernatorial Election. For these 3 men, and especially Mank himself, the nostalgia and passion evoked by the movies is nothing but the smoky byproduct of story conversations with money-minded execs. In time, for better and (ultimately) for worse, they all grow to realize the immense narrative power they hold over their audiences–whether it’s over this week’s blockbuster or the political future of their country.
Fincher in turn uses the power of cinema as an uncomfortable tool throughout his film–whether it’s phony newsreels made to influence elections, endless film history in-jokes or visual references to the film Mankewicz and Orson Welles would go on to make, or an uncanny valley that arises from using the latest in HDR technology to replicate the look and feel of a 1940s Wellesian drama. The end result is a film whose protagonist is endlessly conscious of his past as well as his future–bitterly jaded by the creative world he himself profits from, but hopeful that some force of good, or at least something of merit, can come from his efforts. Unlike the straightforward reverence of Fincher’s cinematic competitor ten years ago, Mank doesn’t shy away from the monstrous ugliness behind the magic of the movies–rather, Mank recognizes just how much power film can have in the hands of the right (or wrong) people.
Working from a script by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, Mank is a dizzying deep dive into the dream factory of the pre-War Hollywood Studio System, one struggling to maintain its power at the peak of the Great Depression. MGM’s Studio Head Louis B. Mayer churns out crocodile tears as he pleads for his workforce to take a salary cut that he’s miraculously avoided himself. Fellow industry titan Hearst peddles his influence everywhere from local politics to the new Roosevelt administration, determined to keep his wealth and power at a status quo increasingly at odds with reality. Oldman’s Mank glides through these worlds with charm and ease, ever fueled by a bottomless amount of liquid courage–earning him a place both in the studio story offices and as a “court jester” for Hearst and his young starlet wife, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Each of these real-life figures are brought to life with wit and zeal by Fincher’s stacked ensemble. Oldman’s Mank is a hilariously bitter cocktail of sarcasm and self-loathing, ever tempered by everyone else’s sincerity or greedy depravity like a sounding board of amorality. Frustratingly ever under his brother’s shadow, Tom Phelphrey’s Joe Mankewicz struggles to navigate the shifting politics of studio life, growing more conscious of how Mank alienates himself just as Joe manages to get into others’ good favor. In a similar boat is Amanda Seyfried’s memorable Marion: she handles each awkward situation with star-quality glamour and charm, fighting tooth and nail to preserve her own identity as she’s boxed in by gossip columnists, studio execs, and even her own power-hungry husband. Also notable is Howard’s two-faced Mayer, who treats managing actors and creatives as a performance in its own right–even though any sense of self-effacing power blanches in the presence of Dance’s Hearst, where Mayer’s little more than a lapdog. That’s also not to mention headstrong, dedicated turns by Tuppence Middleton and Lily Collins as Mank’s wife Sara and his dutiful writer’s assistant Rita, respectively, and a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo by Bill Nye as Oil! and The Jungle author turned doomed Democratic candidate Upton Sinclair.
Technical prowess behind the camera is top-notch as expected. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross ditching their electronica soundtracks from previous Fincher collaborations in favor of a lush, orchestral soundtrack that’s just as brooding and suspenseful yet plays wonderfully against Oldman’s ever-crackling sense of humor. Cinematography, production design, and sound design work in tandem to faithfully reproduce the world and look of the 1930s and 40s with painstaking detail–down to the clicks and hiss of a Mono soundtrack and digitally-added cigarette burns. For its laborious efforts, though, Mank never feels like it wholly becomes of the era it depicts. Fincher’s signature perfectionist style, with glances or framing always just so, draws more attention to the amount of artifice and design meant to sustain the illusion of being a period piece rather than suspending such disbelief. Mank feels like an ersatz blend of past and future–indulging in a reverent nostalgia while ever cynically conscious of its own artificial construction.
But given the journey of Mank’s subject material, that’s likely by design. In Mank, the battle over California’s future rests in the hands of an old-school Republican governor championed by wealthy elites in a time of economic turmoil, or an increasingly popular idealist who, quite frankly, scares the hell out of anyone who either makes movies or who can still afford to go to them. A flippant comment by Mank to later MGM head Irving G. Thalberg inadvertently births the fake newsreels later blamed for Sinclair’s loss — one of the first cinematic examples of “fake news,” playing directly to Capra-esque populism to get audiences to vote against their own interests. In that same vein, Mank’s endlessly artificial aesthetic draws its audience’s attention to how and why such tactics are used–and to what end. It’s through this tumultuous political lens that Mank first realizes that the cheap narrative turns he pitches in jab-filled story meetings still translates to powerful emotions felt by audiences–that he isn’t just an entertainer, but with the right turn of phrase or shocking twist, he can wield just as much power as a megalomaniac like Hearst.
Like the film Mankewicz would later go on to write, Mank is a film ruminating on the sources of power as much as it does the ripple effects of its consequences. Plenty of characters in the film talk about what they’d change about the world if they had the power, or deny they have any sense of agency in how world events unfold. But Fincher and his film remain ever conscious of the power these people do have–whether as marquee icons or heads of major creative enterprises–and that such denial or well-wishing is poisonously apathetic. While Mank the man may turn up his nose at cinematic idealism, Mank cherishes and champions the sincere, real-life idealism that inspires such stories. According to Mank, it’s what inspired one of cinema’s most enduring films–and while it’d be a stretch to compare Mank to Kane, one can’t help but admire Fincher’s film for championing a similar rebirth of such inspiring idealism in its own cynical, acerbic, yet endearing way.
Mank is now available on streaming and in limited theatrical release from Netflix.