Mank – 2020

Director David Fincher
Screenplay Jack Fincher (Eric Roth)
Starring Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Charles Dance, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke

Herman Mankiewicz (“Mank”) didn’t like his “friends” William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg. During one of Mank’s many combative scenes with the latter, we get the gist of the meaning behind the world that created Citizen Kane:

“Irving, you are a literate man. You know the difference between communism and socialism. In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.”

As if there’s a difference in the long run.

Mank is a good film that feels like one long explanation of the world that created the classic film directed by, starring and presumably co-written by Orson Welles (Burke). There had been a debate in Hollywood since it’s release about who provided the script. This story pushes past that debate, making it obvious that the one person who lived in the midst of its story is MGM Studio writer Mankiewicz.

In the process, the story, directed by David and written by his father Jack, develops into more of a political screed in an attempt to show the difference between the writer and his wealthy Republican friend, Hearst and his studio head cronies, Mayer and Thalberg.

On one hand, there are the reliably mean and nasty Republicans, represented by Hearst (Dance, in a typically winning Lannister tone) Mayer (Howard, doing his best to make the studio head look like a stooge) and Thalberg (slightly lower level stooge).First they ask the struggling Hollywood studio employees to take a temporary pay cut of half, given that they are in the midst of The Great Depression. Then when Upton Sinclair (the appropriately cast political animal Bill Nye) is running for governor, they force the same employees to create the “original” smear campaign to push one of their own to win the race. This is too much for Mank to swallow, along with the copious amount of alcohol.

Mank, played by the remarkable Oldman, is a man caught between. Sure he’s been made rich by the capitalist system that he decries at his rich socialite parties. On the other hand, the late Jack Fincher’s script (with help from rewrites by Roth) makes it obvious that he was one with the working (and unemployed) Hollywood stiffs, struggling mightily under the weight of the country’s biggest economic downturn in its history to that point.

The story shows Mank splitting remarkably thin hairs when it goes to lengths trying to show the difference between the maligned communist, socialist and Democratic (socialist) parties. The Republicans don’t like any of the three, of course. They’re the ones doing the maligning. Only Mank has the wherewithal and ability with words to tell everybody that one can walk the line of “sharing the wealth” and not be like the either Lenin’s communists or Hitler’s socialists. He has the benefit of not having to prove this and still feel like he is right, given the dirty tricks that the capitalists present in making their studio backed propaganda.

This has the benefit of making Mank look like the patron saint of Democratic Socialism and everyone who voted for something Hearst wants a stooge at best. Sounds very familiar to politics today.

This story is provided as a series of flashbacks, while the main timeline shows the author sequestered in Victorville, California, nearly immobile due to a car accident. John Houseman (Troughton) acts as the go between for Mank and Welles. He’s given a housekeeper, a secretary (Collins) and 60 days to get the script finished and delivered to Welles. Given the film’s relatively economic 131 minute run time, it’s safe to assume he makes the cut.

Fincher and his father do a concise job of setting the scene for the creation of one of the biggest smear campaign retaliations in Hollywood history. It’s shows to be the product of a newly rich, up and coming Welles, along with the very comfortable studio writer Mank, taking a shot above their level of wealth, but below their level of talent.

If there is one problem with the film, it’s that it clearly has to take the side of its titular protagonist, and in the process we get the most overtly political film of Fincher’s career. It’s perfectly within his right to do so, but if you can’t make your adversary look at all decent or at least clever, it doesn’t make the hero look much better. If they had found a way to at least make the case for the opposition seem plausible, there might be less of a Smokey and the Bandit feel to it all.

That’s not to insinuate that this is a bad film. Far from it. The black and white cinematography is some of the year’s best. Fincher with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt seems to get better at framing each scene with every film. The senses are ablaze at simple scenes like Mank’s brother arriving to Victorville to talk about the script. Seeing the car whiz by in front of Mank and his secretary playing cribbage is enough to take one’s breath away. It’s a throwaway scene, but they make even that unforgettable.

The script, even with the politics, is remarkable. Rarely has Oldman been given so many chances to look so clever, while simultaneously self destructive. It’s a genuinely human performance while presenting one whose reputation is larger than life.

Seyfried is excellent as Marion Davis, the actress girlfriend of Hearst who, while no longer a debutante, plays the part of someone who understands her position better than Mank does. Much of the film involves discussion around this fact, to the point where Mank has to repeatedly explain that she is not exactly the character Susan Alexander Kane.

There is a lot to work with here, and apparently they did. The producers believed Jack Fincher’s original script was too aniti-Welles. One of them, Roth, pushed the story away from their mythical battle and more towards the other myth, upon which Mankiewicz’ screenplay is based.

The result gives it the feel of just another anti-Trump screed. I am not sure that it is entirely that, but chances are the producers thought, what the hell. It is more than this, though.

As a lover of cinema, this film feels integral and true to the spirit of history, at least from the “creatives” point of view. It makes me want to watch Citizen Kane again, and maybe this time without Ebert’s commentary over it all. I don’t believe that the people on the side of the “worker” were any less naive than their Republican voting counterparts. While one person is at the party saying “Let them eat cake” unironically while talking about making a film about Marie Antoinette, there is another person across from them, disagreeing entirely, while enjoying the same piece of theoretical cake.

(**** out of *****)

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