Private Greatness: David Fincher’s ‘Mank’

This week, Hollywood is abuzz about HBO Max’s assault on theatrical windows. It is perhaps the greatest threat yet to cinema as we know it, in a year that had already been most unkind to older forms of entertainment, giving streaming platforms even more of an upperhand — a shot in the arm they really didn’t need.

This week also sees the premiere of a feature film made for Netflix by David Fincher, an executive producer and the first episodic director of House Of Cards, which kicked off the platform’s reign as the king of original streaming content and sent the film market slowly but surely moving toward the home viewing experience. Fincher, one of cinema’s most celebrated auteurs, is already quite cozy with the streaming giant; in addition to House Of Cards, he’s executive produced two seasons of the stellar psychological horror series Mindhunter, and directed seven episodes. Fincher is known for his Kubrickian control behind the camera — a meticulous attention to detail, shooting take after take until he gets it right. You might expect him to be a purist like Christopher Nolan, another lauded technical craftsman whose Tenet — made for Warner Bros., under the same umbrella that owns HBO Max — ceremoniously flopped in theaters this summer, proving Nolan’s usual pied piper effect was no match for a catastrophic pandemic that had most moviegoers wisely deciding to consume their entertainment safely at home. Nolan has been one of the last defenders of the old school theatrical experience, shooting on film, showing up on IMAX screens. But he’ll need to find a new home if he’s to stick to his guns, for no Warner Bros. feature will debut exclusively in theaters any time soon.

Meanwhile, over at Netflix, Fincher has been given all the autonomy an auteur could ask for. Mank looks and sounds like a film from Hollywood’s golden age, the classics that were shot on film and played exclusively in theaters. In 2020, you can’t make a movie like that anymore — not even Nolan, one of the last men who could, has that guarantee anymore. But if you play by the streamers’ rules, you can make a pretty good facsimile of the movies that made a name for Warner Bros. and Paramount and Universal — the movies those studios won’t make anymore. How ironic, that the same day many decry as the Day the Movies Died, their well-preserved corpse shows up alive and well over at Netflix, ready to tap dance its way through awards season.

At first glance, it appears that Mank may be another starry-eyed puff piece like The Artist, emulating a familiar style without quite locating the soul that made it special in the first place. The pace is zippy, the dialogue snappy, on-screen chyrons ape screenplay format to tell us where and when we are, and there are occasional scratches and cigarette burns on what is otherwise one of the year’s most pristinely presented films.

David Fincher wants you to get comfortable in old Hollywood, because he’s about to shake things up. Mank is slyly subversive — so sly, perhaps, that many viewers won’t even detect the subterfuge. He’s dressed the film up in a classic’s clothing, so we don’t notice he’s smuggled a bomb into the theater. (Our home theater, that is.) He’s blowing up old Hollywood from the inside out, the way Herman Mankiewicz would have loved to do — and, in part, did, as the author of Citizen Kane.

The author, you say? Orson Welles and Citizen Kane have been synonymous for about 80 years now. He made it, and it made him. What Welles and his collaborators brought to the production of Citizen Kane is a story for another film. Herman Mankiewicz was not on set, whispering in Welles’ ear, weighing in on the performances and cinematography. He was finished by that point. But he did write the screenplay — that little document that great movies are based on, the seed that bears the fruit — and is so often forgotten. There’s a rousing debate over the amount of involvement Welles had in the writing of the script. Mank’s position is that he had none. The story of Citizen Kane, from beginning to end, is Mankiewicz’s opus. Of course that’s Mank’s take. This is his story! But the magic of Mank is that this script’s writer, Jack Fincher, has brought Mankiewicz so fully to life that we somehow imagine this crafty character wrote his own biopic, too. So who cares, really, if Welles had more of a hand in the writing than Fincher would have us believe? Welles already gets credit for directing, producing, and starring in a film often cited as the greatest of all time. The man’s reputation can handle an alternate take. Why not let the Finchers indulge in a little fan faction?

Mank isn’t a correction to historical record; it’s a celebration of a man who is, in large part, responsible for one of the most esteemed creations in American art — though many hardcore cinephiles wouldn’t be able to identify him by name. (‘Til now. Thanks, Finch.) In that way, it’s a valentine to screenwriters everywhere — the unknown, the underappreciated, the unthanked-from-the-podium. The story of Mank sees Herman Mankiewicz laboring over a great piece of art — his best, they say — then handing it off to a “greater” man to bring it to life. (Or to squander or smother it — these things often go awry, but by this point, it’s out of the writer’s hands.) And guess who gets all the credit? That’s every screenwriter’s story, if they’re lucky enough to even make it to such a point.

Mank could be angrier or more righteous, but the film, like the character, acknowledges it and moves on, because that’s show business; as much as it changes, it never really does. But for these two hours, it is the writer, for once, who gets his place in the sun. He exchanges witty repartee with comely dames, rubs elbows with the richest and most influential names of the day, comes up with the snappiest comebacks at just the right moment. He’s a boozy old egghead waltzing through a classy Hollywood picture like he’s Cary Grant. Only a screenwriter would imagine such glory for one of his brethren, and it’s done with a wink. Jack Fincher knows this isn’t exactly how things went — he’s sprinkled the ol’ Hollywood pixie dust on Mank’s story, the same way every other biopic gets glossed up for primetime. Citizen Kane, for one, had plenty of made-up razzle-dazzle — so much, that the names were changed to protect the far-from-innocent. Why shouldn’t Herman Mankiewicz be given the same luxury screenwriters have afforded to biopics about everyone else?

But Mank isn’t just an appreciation of Herman Mankiewicz; it’s a takedown of old Hollywood that just happens to be gussied up like old Hollywood produced this takedown of itself. It’s a film about Hollywood’s cowardice and corruption — refusing to take a stand against Hitler, lest it affect foreign box office; allowing the Red Scare and McCarthyism to torpedo many powerless artists’ careers — putting the good name of the greatest names in showbiz, like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, on the chopping block. (These titans’ sordid pasts have sullied their reputations elsewhere already, but it’s especially fun to see it done in a movie that looks like it was dreamed up on their own studio lot.)

Mayer is a ruthless son of a bitch who squeezes pennies out of his player’s salaries without ever taking a hit himself; Arliss Howard’s performance is perfection, especially in a killer walk-and-talk through the halls of his office. He tells Mank that MGM has only one star — the lion — but of course, he’s really talking about himself. “Never forget that,” he warns. “Many stars have, and now they twinkle elsewhere.” Thalberg is more even-handed and practical in his dirty dealings, an opportunist who seems to sense his days are numbered and can’t afford to lose by taking a moral stand against his cronies. Mank speaks to the uncomfortable, and often unethical, relationship between entertainment and politics, and shakes an impotent but principled fist at newspaper titan William Randolph Hearst, who was not-so-secretly the target Citizen Kane took aim at. (Charles Dance radiates power as Hearst, as menacing as a real-life news magnate here as he was as the killer king in Game Of Thrones.)

The true history of the battle between Hearst and Welles, which might well have seen the film destroyed before it ever played in theaters, is one that Mankiewicz wasn’t so much a part of; that’s a story for another movie, so it’s not really here. But Fincher’s production design and cinematography evoke Citizen Kane without being too precious about it, and Hearst’s brief appearance here is enough to assure us that Mankiewicz’s screenplay absolutely captured this media monster in a fair light. And Marion Davies, deliciously embodied by Amanda Seyfried in a scene-stealing, awards-bound performance, is once asked by Mank to take a stand against the studio’s crooked political propaganda; she refuses, because her actressy vanity won’t allow her to take such a risk.

In Mank, all Hollywood power players check their conscience at the door (if they had one to begin with). It allows them to do what they need to do to survive in a cutthroat kingdom like Tinseltown, whether that’s the life-ruining vindictiveness of Mayer or merely Davies’ “starry-eyed self-absorption.” The low men, like Mank, are low because they have a conscience. Mank’s friend Shelly Metcalf, who harbors an ambition to direct, makes a moral compromise with dire consequences, and pays dearly for it — but only because he feels the guilt. That’s a cross the bigger fish in this story never choose to bear. Hearst, Mayer, Thalberg, Welles, and Davies have all made their respective deals with their devils, and they don’t look back.

None of this is flattering of Hollywood, as lovely as it looks. In 1941, Citizen Kane was probably as righteously indignant a picture as one could make — it almost didn’t see the light of day, after all — railing against greed and malfeasance, but ultimately sounding a melancholy note that turns its overall story arc into one of innocence lost. In 2020, Netflix is already bulldozing down most of what those old studios built up, anyway — they’re more than happy to let an auteur like Fincher take aim at the old guard, and they’ll toss a bucket of money at him for his troubles.

Mank is a Trojan horse with a bomb in its belly. It looks and feels like a nice little Oscar darling, but it is not. And yet it will still likely be fawned over by the very industry it is skewering — or half of it, anyway. The Academy loves an ego stroke, which is how The Artist, Birdman, La La Land, Hugo, and Argo have all been feted over the last decade. Mank has the sheen of those films, but it’s coming from a streaming platform that’s still considered an outsider, and it’s a bittersweet confection at best. How will the Academy take to Mank calling it like it is?

The man at the center of it all, of course, is Mank himself, wryly played by Gary Oldman in an even-keeled performance that doesn’t signal the character’s biggest moments of transformation. His wit is dry, but his glass sure isn’t. As the Finchers slowly peel away the glitzy artifice of old Hollywood to reveal the moral rot underneath, Mank himself seems neutral — capable of taking the high road, or the low one — whichever way the wind blows him. (Or, perhaps, whichever way is serving the best drinks.) Mankiewicz might very well be on a path to moral ruin, until he bristles at the way Hollywood’s “movie magic” is being used to sabotage the candidacy of socialist Upton Sinclair for governorship of California, in order to maintain the more capitalist-friendly ideals of the GOP instead.

Mankiewicz has a moral awakening, but the moment isn’t called out with a swell of strings as Mank shouts up to the heavens in a rainstorm, or anything like that. It’s so subtle, you might easily miss it — as I did, during my first viewing. The most conventional aspects of the biopic pass by in the blink of an eye, often unnoticed. Mank is a scamp, causing unnecessary trouble for himself and his loved ones; his drinking is often to blame. But Mank’s housekeeper considers him a hero, because he brought her and over 100 others out of Germany as the Nazis came to power. It’s mentioned only once, almost in passing. Similarly, the rat-a-tat dialogue rarely pauses to congratulate its own cleverness. There are so many great lines, you’ll need to see Mank two or three times just to catch them all. Perhaps best of all are the discussions of the Citizen Kane script. Welles’ producing partner, assigned to “babysit” Mankiewicz, tells the writer: “The story is so scattered, I’m afraid one will need a road map.” He could just as easily be anticipating the average Netflix viewer’s response to Mank. Jack Fincher equating his own script with one of the greatest ever written gives him an easy out for any critique.

If Jack Fincher is easily analogous with Herman Mankiewicz, it’s tempting to equate the younger Fincher with the wunderkind behind the camera. David Fincher isn’t exactly a Wellesian figure, but he too was acclaimed at a young age, and he too has yet to receive his due in the form of a little gold statue from the Academy. (Citizen Kane saw its Oscars snatched by John Ford’s unexceptional How Green Was My Valley, just like Fincher’s The Social Network lost to The King’s Speech — undeserving, Weinstein-backed awards bait.) And Mank opens with a title card that tells us RKO has given Welles total creative freedom to make any film he wants. Sounds a hell of a lot like the deal Fincher struck with Netflix, don’t you think?

So you might expect to find Fincher behind a film that championed Welles, about the filmmaking genius who takes on the wealthy villain and barely, just barely, emerges victorious. It’s actually quite funny to see Fincher subverting the legend surrounding another venerated auteur, pointing to a screenwriter — a lowly screenwriter — as the true author of a film that Welles’ name is all over. It is David Fincher, after all, who made the 21st century equivalent to Citizen Kane in The Social Network, taking on the story of a nobody from nowhere’s meteoric rise to wealth, fame, and power, and similarly ending with the “great man” on top of the world but aching with loneliness.

The Social Network was made years before we had any idea what kind of influence Facebook could have in our democratic process, but as Mank shows us, Mark Zuckerberg has even more in common with William Randolph Hearst now than he did a decade ago, when fictional Facebook user Erica Albright became the 21st century “Rosebud.” In Mank, Mayer and Thalberg make propagandistic “films” to stoke fear of socialism in the common man — portraying Republican values as synonymous with American values. It’s fake news. They exploit the poor, unsuspecting working class who stands to benefit from a progressive candidate the most. Take a look at your Twitter feed today and find a prominent Republican denouncing Joe Biden’s “radical socialist agenda” to see it all happening again, on an even bigger stage. Mank may look 80 years past its prime, but it’s no museum piece. The conversations it starts are as relevant as can be.  

Mank doesn’t entirely feel like “a David Fincher movie,” as we’ve come to define one. His films tend to exist in a world of controlled chaos, driven by diabolical housewife Amy Dunne in Gone Girl, icy genius Lisbeth Salander in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, the shadowy corporate grifters in The Game, the killers playing God in Zodiac and Seven, or vengeful nerd Zuckerberg. They’re all directors, in their own ways. Someone smart and sinister is always methodically moving us toward our conclusion. Mank is an altogether different type of character — if he has an analog in Fincher’s oeuvre, it’s Tyler Durden, so unruly and puckish he ended up being a figment of the imagination. Mank the film meanders, like the man would, circling an important story without necessarily ever driving it. Mankiewicz is a supporting character in the legends of “great men” — Orson Welles, Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst — gliding in and out of the circles of influence surrounding these mammoths of American myth. Most movies would portray Welles as the hero, Hearst as the villain, but the Finchers find an equivalence of ego in both men. Neither is a true antagonist — the real scoundrel is the system, and what people will do to themselves, and to each other, to ensure that it survives — if only because they can’t imagine life without it.

Mayer gets another of Mank’s most potent bits of dialogue: “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the magic of the movies.” Throughout the film, “movie magic” is equated not with the way we’re transported through the screen, but the way Hollywood suckers us into buying whatever it wants to sell us — whether that’s a masterpiece in the making, a forgettable B-picture, an $8 bucket of popcorn, a juicy tidbit of gossip, or another shitty Republican.

Mank may be a takedown of “great men” and hallowed Hollywood mythos, but it’s not an especially angry one. It blows up more than one legend — not with a bang, but with a shrug. “I should’ve done something by now,” Mank laments, drunkenly, to both God and his wife in an early scene. One feels that despair driving the entire story, though it’s probably Jack Fincher’s angst more than it is Mankiewicz’s.

Fincher’s film is a baffling anomaly, roaring into a relatively sparse awards season with all the hype and prestige a film like this could muster, only to take a seat in the corner of the joint and start cracking wise about everyone in the room. But it is, quietly, great. The elder Fincher seeks not to present us with another tired cradle-to-grave biopic; as Mank says of the Kane screenplay, it’s impossible to sum up a man in two hours. He merely wishes to leave “an impression of a life.” Strangely, sadly, sweetly, that is what Netflix and David Fincher have done — but the life is not Mank’s. It is Jack’s.

And it’s everyone else’s. Towering figures like Mayer, Welles, and Hearst get a juicy scene or two, but we don’t come to know them as characters. They remain as legends, at a distance. But there are many other figures in Mank’s world who do properly come to life — Lily Collins as Mank’s capable secretary; Tom Pelphrey as his brother Joe, who would go on to be a “great man” but wasn’t yet; Tuppence Middleton as “poor Sara,” Herman’s bemused and exasperated wife; Joseph Cross as Marion’s nephew, one of several who questions Mank’s portrayal of the real-life figures in his script. Mank rescues Marion Davies from the regrettable reputation Welles and Mankiewicz assigned her Citizen Kane doppelganger; she’s more than just a boozy floozy here. All of these characters are allowed to crawl out from the shadows of the bigwigs who usually get movies made about them. It’s the housekeepers and secretaries and long-suffering wives who make an impression, the guys who never got their shot (as Jack Fincher himself didn’t). “Great men” always get their due, but good ones do too seldom. Mank pours one out for the men and women in the background, the names history forgets.

So far, critics and cinephiles don’t seem to know quite what to do with Mank, a film that demands to be examined from countless angles. Let’s zoom out. It’s fascinating to observe it in the context of Netflix’s other major awards contenders over the years, to take a look at what our most revered filmmakers do with their Netflix mad money. Alfonso Cuaron recreated his childhood, paying tribute to a beloved housekeeper. Martin Scorsese returned to the genre that made him a legend, questioning its merits with a more critical eye than before. Spike Lee updated Hollywood staples like the adventure film and Vietnam War epic with Black characters, speaking to the ever-ongoing conversation around race in America. And now David Fincher has used it to write a love letter to his father, and to Herman Mankiewicz — two undersung screenwriters.

Fincher had the clout to get just about any movie he wanted made; Netflix sure had the money to make it. So Mank, clearly, is a passion project for a filmmaker whose work rarely, if ever, has Fincher himself as its point of origin. His films are often best-sellers, adapted by talented writers; had he not helmed them, they would have been made anyway. He just makes them better than anyone else. Mank is something special, perhaps the first film Fincher’s ever given us that was truly made for love. Scorsese, Cuaron, and Lee did not make their very best films with their NetflixBuxx, but that’s a hell of a thing to ask. Fincher hasn’t either — but on the other hand, what a gift for Netflix to give us — to strip away common hindrances like budgetary restraints and opening weekend box office receipts, so we can truly see what’s in our favorite filmmakers’ souls.

Mank the screenplay is Jack Fincher’s tribute to Herman Mankiewicz; Mank the movie is David Fincher’s ode to his father, a screenwriter who also never got his due. As prestigious as it is as an awards contender, it’s the kind of film that could only be made as a labor of love, and only by a filmmaker with cachet worth bankrolling. Jack Fincher died in 2003; unlike Mankiewicz, he did so without a credit on a masterpiece like Citizen Kane — or any produced screenplay, until his son resurrected this project. The story behind Mank may end up being more triumphant than the one contained in Jack Fincher’s pages — but that, too, is the “magic of the movies.”

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