Mank isn’t a movie for everyone, although it disguises itself as one. Since this is a Netflix original, its audience will likely exceed the number of people who could have turned to a home art theater in the past. And it’s directed by David Fincher, whose tense thrillers – including Se7en, Fight Club, Gone Girl, Zodiac, and Social network – have earned him a reputation as a fiercely savage.
I can’t imagine a lot of Fincher heads being thrilled Mank, although. No serial killers, no fights, no bloody murders. Its target audience is an almost impressive niche: moviegoers, movie critics, and people deeply interested in the history of Hollywood around 1940. It’s not that someone outside of that audience can’t watch and , in broad strokes, understand the history of Mank. It’s that to a certain extent the movie resembles baseball. (If you want to unwrap that inside baseball – which has to do with turn-of-the-century bumps, 1930s Hollywood politics, and 1960s movie critic feuds, check out this explainer.)
Mank is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane, which is still widely (and, in my eyes, rightly so) considered one of the greatest films of all time. He shares the writing credit with director, producer and star of the film, Orson Welles. Mank takes place under two deadlines. The first is 1940. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a seasoned Hollywood screenwriter who has had no luck and who was embarrassed by a car accident, is sent by a film producer to a lonely house with a nurse and a secretary to write a screenplay for Orson Welles. He titles this scenario America, but it eventually becomes Citizen Kane.
MankThe second timeline begins about a decade ago, as Mankiewicz meets William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), one of America’s richest and most famous men, and Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion. Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Mankiewicz is a very busy writer and an infamous drunkard. All the famous writers and many famous producers of the time appear in this timeline – from David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) to Ben Hecht (Jeff Harns) to Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) – and Mankiewicz himself. slowly realizes, through a number of experiments, that the industry in which he works is both influential in a way that has nothing to do with entertainment and morally bankrupt. (This last item is closely tied to the election of the governor of California in 1934, which means that Upton Sinclair, played by Bill Nye, makes an appearance.)
Fincher, working from a screenplay written by his father Jack Fincher, makes an obvious nod to the films of the time and Citizen Kane More precisely. Mank is in black and white. There are some fake effects meant to mimic what you might see on actual film, even if Fincher is filming digitally. Certain editing choices and blooms – like fades at the end of a scene – pay homage to a bygone era in Hollywood cinema.
But if Mank pays homage, he does not do so slavishly; the film is not a love letter to Hollywood. The film industry likes to make films about itself. But if, say, a work like the winner of the best film 2013 Argo Hollywood saves the world, so Mank is exactly the opposite. Mank tells the story of a screenwriter for whom working in Hollywood isn’t like bringing home an easy, huge paycheck for throwing silly ideas. Like many others who were heading West at the time – including, for example, F. Scott Fitzgerald – Mankiewicz had been a successful journalist and playwright before landing on Paramount grounds. For him, movies were a diversion, fundamentally silly entertainment that offered a perfectly fine way to make a living, but didn’t matter much otherwise.
During Mank, however, he comes to realize that the way the film industry works has big implications in the real world, from the lowest paid workers who struggle to make a living to the way the films they produce can. distort the truth and benefit the powerful. Citizen Kane, at least in Mankis revealing, is equally its stroke of revenge and its plea for atonement.
It’s a very good movie, tight, layered and complex. And while it might sound cold – and I understand that reaction – I found it quite touching.
We live, in a sense, in the world that Mankiewicz, Hearst and Mayer and the others made: a world where the moving image has profoundly affected how we perceive reality and what we believe to be true. In MankA timeline of the 1930s, Mankiewicz only captures the power that images, whether “real” or not, wield over ordinary people who view them. At one point, he casually says that he can’t imagine that ordinary moviegoers would actually fall in love with the messages they see on screen. He quickly learns that he greatly overestimated the regular moviegoer.
This lesson resonates at the end of 2020, for social and political reasons that I probably don’t need to explain. But that’s also why Mankiewicz’s budding directing and the slowness of his decision to throw himself under the bus – writing what turned out to be not only his best film, but quite possibly Hollywoodbest film of – is so poignant. It is an idea of the promise of cinema, but also of the limits of cinema.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to ignore the irony of a movie like Mank produced by Hollywood upstart Netflix for viewing primarily on televisions and laptop screens. The Hollywood that Herman J. Mankiewicz worked in was on the verge of a change, a loss of innocence, as the studio system began to stagnate and new ways of doing business appeared on the horizon. A similar shift is now looming, due in large part to a decline in the shared experience of going to the theater and the focus by studios of individualistic films – “going” on small screens. There’s a lesson in there somewhere, although I’m not sure we’ll know what it is until we take a few years away.
But what is evident from Mank, is that movies are not designed to save anyone. They never have been. They can be transformative; they can do good in the world; they can change people’s perspectives in several ways. But not just because they’re movies. Any impact of a film is the result of an artist choosing to look beyond the tip of their nose and do something vulnerable, determined, and risky. Entering into someone else’s experience through a film is different from being presented with statistics or controversy.
When those in power exploit the moving image for their own ends, they are doing the exact opposite of saving the world. What Mank suggests that daring to take films (and, by extension, television) seriously, and see them for the cultural sign that they are, takes courage and perhaps a little recklessness. There is no guarantee that your efforts will be rewarded. It does not matter. It is worthwhile work.
Mank premieres December 4th on Netflix.