As NY Times writer Jonah Weiner succinctly puts it in his piece on David Fincher, “No living director surpasses [his] reputation for exactitude.” There may not be a modern filmmaker known for the same level of perfection as Fincher, but “There’s just a difference between mediocre and acceptable,” according to the director, whose newest film “Mank” drops on Netflix this Friday.
A long-gestating passion project based on a script written by David’s late-father, Jack Fincher (who passed away in 2003) “Mank,” takes the overall framework of its structural cues from Orson Welles‘ film school canon masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” the writing of which, the Finchers’ posthumous collaboration dramatizes – though not without years of layered research from the director’s father, a journalist who wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle (featured prominently in the screenwriter’s son’s 2007 feature “Zodiac“) as well as Life magazine. Having been hired to pen the debut film of Welles – “the boy genius from New York,” infamous for his 1938 “War of the Worlds” radio scare – humble playwright and drama critic turned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, well known in Hollywood for both his ferociously sharp storytelling skills and the numerous vices he had, such as drinking himself half-to-death and gambling away C-notes in petty studio games which made him as unpopular as he was talented. The first-time director has Mank holed up in a ranch out in Victorville, insuring an escape from impure distractions, with Fincher’s film flashing back (as ‘Kane’ did) to illuminate the inception of his Oscar-winning script (as opposed to exploring why a newspaper tycoon cared so much about his childhood sled).
Starring the legendary Gary Oldman as the classic Hollywood scribe (who may technically be too old for the part, but if a formal puritan like Fincher, David, can look past it, so too can audiences) “Mank” is equal parts cutting and extremely curious for an artist who has carved out a niche such as its director, a filmmaker who has almost come to be defined by his fussiness. Having already made a non-traditional, Shakespearean-level deposition chamber biopic in the form of “The Social Network,” (which was famously, and now uber-ironically dubbed, “the ‘Citizen Kane’ of John Hughes movies,” at the time) “Mank” isn’t so much operating in unfamiliar territory for its director as it is honing and humbling the hard-earned heart of a creative skillset: the ability to make words into magic on screen. Cynically told through the eyes of a man who was possibly too smart for his own good in a world that would much prefer he simply smile and nod, Mank might be a one-man character study, as its end-result is, but additionally, the “jumping bean” approach allows for a venomous, if sometimes on-the-nose, study of how political fear in the face of change led to the creation of something we now commonly call “fake news,” beginning as a social sleight of hand projected to the masses in the dark, thanks to the corrupt stuff that dreams are made of.
As the inspiration for his latest work, the life of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), becomes clearer and clearer, more of Mank’s closest confidants – such as his brother Joseph L. (Tom Pelphery), and WGA colleague Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), whose aunt, Marion Davies (a fabulously radiant Amanda Seyfried), is Heart’s mistress – question his motives and warn of the dangers that may come from blatantly paralleling such a powerful figure. “Write hard. Aim low,” Mank’s editor John Houseman (Sam Troughton) encourages, after reading some initial pages and finding it to be “a bit of a jumble.” “That’s why I write for the movies,” Mank says.
The reasons for his subject of choice are illuminated, of course, by the flashback scenes, which begin in 1930 during the Great Depression. Introducing his soon to be successful brother Joseph (who would go on to make “All About Eve“) to studio head Louis B. Mayer (a terrifically prickly Arliss Howard) informs his legion of workers that their “preeminent dream factory” is experiencing grave financial difficulties, asking everyone under contract to give up half their salaries. For overpaid actors, scribes and producers afforded lavish luxuries, this simply means their huge Hollywood Hills homes and gambling debts won’t be paid off for a little longer than expected, for the grips and electricians, it means less food on the table. The economic-woes angle of the script may be slight, but 2020 has only further brought its prevalence into light.
Revealingly, Fincher’s new film is certainly one of the warmest in his catalog, but it never lets us see our country fully heal, glossing over the year that changed Hollywood, cutting from the time around Irving Thalberg‘s (Ferdinand Kingsley) death, to Mank hermiting up to write, to post-Kane’s release. America and the Hollywood industry still wrestle with many of the same political problems as they did in the studio heyday. With the growing power of conglomerates such as Disney (who’ve practically won the Streaming Wars already) and the Paramount decision now outdated, the business of making movie magic is as vertically integrated as its been in decades, and “Mank” deftly explores the frightful implications such a potential media monopoly, able to manipulate every movie-going citizen, via a political campaign spear against author Upton Sinclair (played in a brief cameo by Bill Nye – yes, the Science Guy) in which Hearst’s control over the jungle-world of news through his connections with Thalberg and Mayer is shrewdly revealed.
But many of these elements have been overshadowed by the inevitable conversation that surrounds the authoring of ‘Kane’s’ blueprint, much ado to film critic Pauline Kael‘s now-often maligned “Raising Kane,” which posits that Welles had nothing at all to due with the script (something that has been disputed by several other primary sources). Jack Fincher’s screenplay appears to abide by Kael’s theory, but, it is of this writer’s humble opinion that it’s done so more for dramatic purposes than historically precise ones, paralleling the style of old Hollywood endings. Welles effectively credits himself for the script’s success as soon as he shows up, suggesting an ego that’s almost purposefully being dialed to caricature proportions (and, as Adam Nayman points out, he eerily resembles David Fincher, hmm…) Overall, Tom Burke is great in the role, although his accent slips a couple times when re-dialing his vocal levels during the final confrontation. I imagine these elements are what have “distanced,” many critics – a word that’s been far over-used in the discourse surrounding the film, in this scribe’s opinion.
On first watch, the big final confrontation between Mank and Welles did seem too narratively simple and hand-me-down. On second viewing, it sprung to my mind just why, as well as how the culminating stretch of “Mank” purposefully mirrors the cathartic climaxes of many classical era films, particularly something like “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” an ending speech that contemporary audiences would no doubt see as far too on-the-nose today, were it not for Jimmy Stewart’s tremendous performance and now-close-to extinct, gentleman star power. Of course, Frank Capra’s film was not co-authored by the director, but was uncreditedly co-written by Myles Connolly – being released during a landmark turning point in the classical industry period: the year 1939, the best year the movies had yet seen (and some argue, it still has). That year also saw the release of “The Wizard of Oz” – a movie which Mank won’t stop bemoaning about throughout the entire film, incorrectly prophesizing it as an iceberg that will sink the studio as his wife undresses him while falling into bed in a drunken state – and “Gone with the Wind,” the highest grossing film of all time to date, adjusted for inflation (sorry, “Titanic” and MCU fan-fic).
Most all cinephile know the stories of Fincher’s penchant for exacting an excessive amount of dialog takes. During the 2010 award season’s actor roundtable, in which Jesse Eisenberg discusses working with him on “The Social Network,” Robert Duvall comes close to berating the young performer for praising a director who would ever shoot 50 takes. “The great Stanley Kubrick was an actors enemy!”, he at one point screams, “An actors enemy!”, actor Ryan Gosling struggling to contain his amusement in the background. In many ways, “Mank” feels like Fincher conceding that men who are expressively myopic in their visions are often a movie – and by extension, possibly the screenwriter’s – worst enemy. As Francois Truffaut put it, “The best scripts don’t make the best films.” Now, while I don’t agree with that narrow statement, “Mank” and “The Social Network,” almost offer a counter point: the best scripts can make the best movies, they’ve just got to stomach all the shifty politics, self-sorry shit and other personal hurdles on the road there first.
Early in the film, Mank’s assortment of screenwriter clowns describe one of the many “thought provoking” themes of the mish-mash monster movie they’re improv-pitching to the great David-O (Selznick); it’s about “The ominous futility of men playing God,” as ‘Kane’ effectively is, as are pretty much all meta-textual films on the nature of the artistic gaze, in many respects; see: Welles final, unfinished movie “The Other Side of the Wind,” also released by Netflix. “Mank” comes close to becoming as self-reflexive as these types of works, but always retains an air of old Hollywood flavor, the disparity of which – alongside aesthetic aspects such as its digital sheen and CGI cigarette burns – have clearly been as considered as the structure of Mankiewicz masterpiece and Welles’ devilish appearance in the grand finale. Fincher isn’t going to let his own creative exactitude intrude on his pops’ script; such hubris got Welles exiled – hubris that Burke’s Orson Welles ends up all-too embarrassed to outwardly reveal before “just a writer,” just another fool afforded a seat in his majesty’s court. But it matters not who wears the heavy crown when its only but a mask for seething contempt. “Well, it’s alright to borrow from each other, what we must never do is borrow from ourselves,” as John Huston‘s J.J. Hannaford would put it.