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Non-Review Review: Mank

There’s something vaguely reassuring about Mank.

The most obviously and immediately striking aspect of David Fincher’s biopic is how consciously the film is steeped in a very particular time and place. Mank plays out against the backdrop of the thirties and forties, following screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he is inspired to develop (and as he actually writes) Citizen Kane. So much of the film deliberately evokes the period; numerous inside jokes and cameos from key Hollywood figures, the stark black-and-white cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt, the way Fincher even frames shots to evoke the period.

However, all of these period elements are juxtaposed with a broader sense of modernity and timelessness. Mank is shot in the same black-and-white style as Citizen Kane, but in a modern aspect ratio. The film features cigarette burns and other markers of classic cinema, but was shot entirely digitally. The film even offers an almost parodic old-fashioned happy ending for most of the major characters, but while telling a story that simply would not have been possible within that studio system.

The result is a movie that celebrates Hollywood without venerating it. Indeed, what distinguishes Mank from many other “films about films” like The Artist or Hugo is the way in which it tempers its nostalgia. Mank doesn’t necessarily long for the past in the way that most Hollywood productions about Hollywood do. This ambivalence to nostalgia is not cynicism or futurism, but a tacit acknowledgement that the past is still present. Mankiewicz might be rubbing shoulder with the players of another era, but the rules remain largely the same.

Indeed, the real joy of Mank is not found its glorification of Hollywood titans or the products of the studio system, but in its celebration of the “supporting players.” The story of the “organ grinder’s monkey” is discussed repeatedly, often as a metaphor for power a hierarchy. Instead, Mank seems to suggest that the relationship is symbiotic. There’s something striking in a movie from a director as venerated as David Fincher that is so openly critical of the various myths of Hollywood like the auteur theory and its cousin “the great man” theory of history.

Mank is the story of a little man, one repeatedly framed as “the court jester” and who does little to push back on that characterisation. As one might expect for a movie about Citizen KaneKing Lear is a frequent point of reference. If so, Mank suggests that the fool has the best view of all.

The timelessness of Mank should not be a surprise. Even outside of its classic Hollywood setting, the film has had a long path to screen. Jack Fincher wrote the script during the nineties, with his son David originally planning on directing after The Game. Unfortunately, Jack passed away in 2003, before the project could be developed. Jack Fincher was a screenwriter with a strong interest in Hollywood history. He famously wrote a script for a biopic about Howard Hughes that was ultimately overshadowed by The Aviator.

So the screenplay for Mank is almost as much an artifact of Hollywood history as the production of Citizen Kane is for the script. Taking the 1997 release of The Game as a marker, the fifty-six years that separate the release of Citizen Kane from Fincher finishing his work on Mank is just over twice the twenty-three year gap between Jack Fincher finishing his work on Mank and the film’s eventual release on Netflix. To a certain extent, Mank does not just document Hollywood history. It is Hollywood history.

Of course, Mank is very much a celebration of Hollywood history, packed with easter eggs and shout-outs for eagle-eyed cinephiles in the audience. Production designer Donald Graham Burt litters the film with wonderful period detail, while Fincher is sure to cram as much Hollywood history as he can into the frame; the “Hollywoodland” sign looms in the background as Louis B. Meyer strolls the MGM lot, with giant marquee posters draped from the studio selling properties like Clara Bow.

Mank is so saturated with Hollywood’s history that it’s interesting to wonder how the film will play with audiences either less familiar with or less enthused about the era in question. All the details are perfect and lavish, but Mank occasionally seems to get lost inside its world. It is indulgent, in a way that will excite cinephiles but might alienate more casual viewers. Mileage will vary over the extent to which this affectionate-yet-slavish recreation of a long-lost era is a sideshow or the main attraction.

However, this loving resurrection of a long-lost Hollywood is interesting in the context of how Mank approaches the industry around its title character. There is no shortage of movies about Hollywood, and in particular no shortage of movies mournfully reflecting on the medium’s volatile and rapidly-changing history. The tendency in these sorts of films is to be wistful and nostalgic, sentimental and elegiac. Hollywood is always changing and evolving, and it is common for films about Hollywood’s past to lament what has been lost in each transition.

Of course, it’s tempting to see this as Hollywood’s insecurity at play. Every version of A Star is Born dramatises the myth that an older idea of stardom has to die for another to be born. Movies like Singin’ in the Rain gave form to Hollywood’s anxiety over the existential threat posed by the arrival of television by using the metaphor of the transition from silent films to talkies. Films like The Artist and Hugo arguably reflected an anxiety about the future of the medium in an increasingly digital age by looking back to its early days. In each case, the past is romantic, distant, and lost.

Mank adopts a somewhat different approach. Instead of emphasising how things have changed, and what has been lost, the film makes a point to suggest how little has changed. Mank suggests that Hollywood (and America) are not as far removed from the thirties and the forties as observers might want (or dread) to admit. Instead, Hollywood is just a gigantic wheel that keeps turning and turning in perpetuity. To present what has changed as apocalyptic is to miss the more crucial reality that perhaps not enough has changed.

There is something oddly reassuring in this, particularly arriving at the end of a turbulent (and highly unusual year) that there is some consistency between the past and the present, that the world that Mankiewicz navigates is not entirely lost to history or obscured by memory. Instead, the basic structures remain in place, the laws governing the dynamics at play are largely unchanged, and the same arguments are playing out.

One early sequence finds a group of writers piling into the office of David O. Selznick to pitch another franchise installment, MGM’s answer to Frankenstein and The Wolfman over at Universal. It’s a crass and cynical exercise, as calculated as any discussion of shared universes or franchise building, no matter how strenuously Mankiewicz might argue about how this “B-Movie” is “really about something.”

Similarly, as Louis B. Meyer guides Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz through the studio lot, he articulates a number of what he believes to be fundamental truths about the mechanics of the movie industry as an entertainment producer. “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory,” Meyer boasts. “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the magic of the movies.” It’s an interesting argument, one that was philosophically true in the thirties, but which feels even more pointed in an era where film goes digital and streaming.

Indeed, Mank pointedly avoids the romance of pretending that the past was necessarily better than the present – and the smug comfort of assuring the audience that it was worse. The gears of the industry were perhaps better hidden, but Mankiewicz arguably understands the machinations of thirties Hollywood better than many modern entertainment journalists understand the system today. Even back in the studio era, Hollywood did not exist in a vacuum. It did not exist independent of political operations, nor divorced from the power of American capitalism.

As powerful at the studios were during that era, Mankiewicz is canny enough to understand that they are just small fish in a larger audience. Louie B. Meyer is Hollywood royalty, a legendary figure who cast a long shadow over the showbiz town, but Mank makes it clear that this is simply a matter of perspective. The studio might seem like a dream factory, Mankiewicz explains, but legends Louie B. Meyer and Samuel Goldwyn “just run it for the money boys back east.” It is not so far removed from the way that modern studios are ultimately just part of larger conglomerates.

However, there’s also an understanding of how much of show business is like any other business. During one conversation, Marion Davies alludes to William Randolph Hearst “picking the President’s cabinet like casting a movie.” Later on, the studios grasp that their own ability to blur the line between fantasy and reality has wider applications. These relationships are not necessarily hierarchal; Mank does not insist that everything is show business. Instead, Mank suggests that everything is business, and certain universal constants carry across.

There’s undoubtedly a contemporary resonance to Mank, and the film doesn’t shy away from it. The bulk of the scenes set in the thirties contextualise the industry’s instability as a result of the Great Depression, with Mankiewicz even making a point to stress how out of touch the Hollywood establishment must be from those actually suffering. Characters repeatedly and pointedly discuss the news coming out of Europe, unsure of precisely how seriously they should treat the ascent of fascism while assuring one another that it could not happen in America.

There are times where it feels almost unbelievable that Jack Fincher wrote the screenplay back in the nineties, although he retains sole credit on the film. As Meyer begins manipulating local politics, Mankiewicz is horrified by the crass vulgarity of it all. Mankiewicz is shocked to watch a newsreel that features actors posing as concerned citizens. He doesn’t exactly call it “fake news”, but the script stops just short. Mankiewicz protests, “It isn’t news and it isn’t real.”

Indeed, Mank occasionally feels a little heavy-handed in its political subtext, in connecting the chaos of the past with the confusion of the present. “I want to protect our way of life,” states an actor in a campaign commercial, as the footage shows an army of “invading hobos” that Mankiewicz correctly points out is designed to play on the xenophobia of the audience watching. It is a pointed reminder that the politics that have defined contemporary America are not new. (In fact, even their modern incarnation originated in California.)

To be fair, while these elements of Mank occasionally seem a little heavy-handed or earnest, they work within the context of a movie positioned in the uncanny valley between Hollywood’s past and its present. This is most obvious in the film’s production, which evokes classic Hollywood with a more modern twist. Most obviously, even though the film is shot in the crisp black-and-white associated with Production Code era Hollywood, characters are allowed to do things they never could have on screen at the time; Joseph Mankiewicz is introduced flushing a toilet.

So the earnestness and heavy-handedness of the film feels enough like an homage to the internal logic of these classic movies that it never feels too awkward or out-of-place. Much has been written about Pauline Kael’s story that inspired the film, debating the historical accuracy of that account of the fight between Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles over the screenwriting credit on Citizen Kane. Interestingly, Mank does not spend as much time on that particularly conflict as it might, even as it implicitly sides with Mankiewicz’s disputed account of events.

Again, this might be distracting or simplistic, but it fits loosely within the framework of the era that Mank is emulating. Jack and David Fincher create a world that isn’t exactly real, but which exists in the space between the imagery realm conjured into being by classic Hollywood and the world as it exists today. In that sense, the historical accuracy of Mank seems almost besides the point. Jack Fincher even structures Mank to provide an almost implausibly happy ending (including a last-minute reversal of a very early moment of heartbreak), so as to evoke the cinema of the era.

This is all very clever and very self-aware. There are moments where this shrewdness becomes almost alienating, as the film seems to see itself in much the same way as Mankiewicz himself, as “always the smartest person in the room”, even when that isn’t necessarily the best thing to be. Structurally and narratively, Mank occasionally feels like an exercise in abstraction, which becomes especially clear towards the climax when Fincher starts shooting Welles in the distinctive low angles that Welles himself would frequently employ.

And yet, there is a lot of heart underpinning Mank. There is a solid argument to be made that Mank is David Fincher’s most overtly humanist and emotional work. This feels appropriate, given the project’s close personal history for Fincher, and the connection that he has to the material. Mank is the story of a screenwriter, written by a screenwriter, and conjured into being by the son of that screenwriter. However, the emotion that drives Mank is more than just that strong personal connection.

Mank is effectively a celebration of all the below-the-line workers who exist at the periphery of the Hollywood myth and machine. Indeed, the film is arguably at its most charming as Mankiewicz stumbles blindly (and often drunkenly) through large-scale productions where he is not only out of place but completely anonymous. When Mankiewicz arrives on the set of a western starring Marion Davies, Meyer has to be reminded that “he did a Lon Chaney for us.”

At one point, discussing the script for Citizen Kane with his brother, Mankiewicz’s focus turns to Marion Davies. His brother argues that the treatment of Davies in the script is unfair and unreasonable. Mankiewicz responds, “You know better than anyone, not all characters are headliners. Some are supporting players.” He is talking about Davies, but also about himself. Mankiewicz is by his nature a supporting player. Indeed, Mank suggests that his greatest accomplishment exists in the shadow of “the boy genius” Orson Welles.

There’s something heartening in all of this, in the manner in which Mankiewicz is not a powerbroker or auteur. He is not a visionary or a leader. Indeed, for most of Mank, Mankiewicz’s influence is understated. His offhand remarks inspire others, while he positions himself as a marginal figure. He is repeatedly framed as the “court jester”, and the parable of “the organ grinder’s monkey” serves a key thematic purpose. Even his “platonic affairs” go unconsummated. In this sense, the movie’s recurring emphasis on union politics and solidarity is a compelling thematic element.

“How many gangsters does the average American meet in their life?” asks William Randolph Hearst in his first meeting with Mankiewicz. “How many families are like the Marx Brothers?” So much of the myth of show business is the validation and celebration of the individual, the crafting of myth around great men. After all, even a movie that is explicitly built around Mankiewicz understands that the history of Citizen Kane will largely reduce the narrative to a battle between the twin titans Hearst and Welles, figures so large that he is caught in their gravity.

Mankiewicz’s life in relative obscurity is juxtaposed with the false modesty of the more mythic and legendary figures around him. At his funeral, the audience is told that Irving G. Thalberg “was a modest man.” However, the pomp and ceremony surrounding Thalberg’s funeral is juxtaposed with the actual anonymity occupied by the writers and directors who toil in obscurity hoping for a big break and decent living conditions. (Mank rather bluntly juxtaposes this by contrasting the funeral with an earlier sequence involving one of Mank’s friends.)

In this sense, Mank is an interesting project for David Fincher. Fincher is arguably one of the few true modern auteurs. His name is used to sell projects, and he has a clear and distinctive visual style. However, Fincher is very much a director. As much as his films are very clearly his films, Fincher does not write his own scripts. Dating back to se7en, writer Andrew Kevin Walker has praised Fincher for his collaborative nature, which is very much at odds with the cliché of the classic Hollywood auteur.

As such, this is another of the delightful contradictions at play in Mank, adding a layer of complexity and nuance to the film. Fincher is a stylist, and he does not try to dial that down in Mank. Instead, he uses it in service of his father’s script and to showcase a screenwriter somewhat overlooked. One might imagine that a director as distinctive and confident as Fincher would be drawn towards Welles, the mythic figure and one of the great Hollywood legends. (After all, Netflix resurrected his The Other Side of the Wind.) Instead, Fincher seems wary of the man and his legend.

It helps that Fincher has assembled a fine cast. The movie belongs to Gary Oldman, who plays Mankiewicz as that classic jerk with a heart of gold. He is a mess, but he is also a decent man – although he would naturally be the last person to admit that. Again, Mank is full of narrative developments that feel like an homage to classic thirties and forties cinema, with the film going out of its way to insist unequivocally that Mankiewicz is a good person despite his flaws and in the face of a hostile world.

It’s impressive how little ground Mank surrenders to the mythic figures around him. This is obvious even in how Fincher shoots the film. Although countless classic Hollywood stars make appearances, Fincher rarely positions his frame in such a way as to foreground them. Indeed, they often appear in crowd shots or out of focus, occasionally even in silhouette. Throughout, they are constantly juxtaposed with the more mundane workers; such as when the stars rally around Louie B. Meyer’s suggested pay cuts while the grips and gaffers realise that they might starve.

Charles Dance impresses as William Randolph Hearst, but only appears in a small handful of scenes and only gets a few moments as the focus of attention. Similarly, Fincher casts relative unknown Tom Burke in the role of Orson Welles, but refuses to let Welles hijack this narrative as effectively as he would have done in real life. The only side character who gets to make a real impression is Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried, presented as a counterpart to Mankiewicz as a mythic figure who might wrest control of the narrative away from him.

Mank is a beautiful piece of work, but is most interesting for the shrewd juxtaposition of form and function. Mank is a film of carefully positioned opposites that play off one another in compelling and engaging ways. It is essentially an auteur piece about how movie-making has always been “a team sport.” It is a loving recreation of classic Hollywood using modern technology released on a streaming service. It also insists that so many of the forces at play in that distant time and place are still at work today.

Mank brings Hollywood’s past and present together, suggesting that – for better and worse – they are not as far apart as they might seem.

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