Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow of the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Since debuting with Aliens 3 in 1992, the director David Fincher has racked up an impressive list of no-nonsense, fast-moving pictures, mostly thrillers, and mostly terrific: Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Panic Room, Zodiac, Benjamin Button, The Social Network, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Gone Girl. It’s a rare filmmaker today who has such a solid list of credits.
Fincher’s latest film, the much-hyped Netflix offering Mank, is not a thriller but is, rather, the latest contribution to another major genre, the movie about Hollywood movie. Hollywood has always loved making movies about Hollywood, for the same reason that Narcissus loved looking at his reflection. Mank is about Herman Mankiewicz, nicknamed Mank, who, depending on which story you believe, either co-wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles or wrote it alone, only to see Welles slap his own name on the script.
When we first meet him, in 1940. Mank (Gary Oldman) is a rumpled, drunken, self-destructive has-been who’s been fired from MGM and planted by Welles in a house in the California desert, where he dries out while fitfully writing Kane. But Mank’s stay at that house turns out to be simply a frame for a story that, like Kane’s, is told mainly in flashbacks. Most of this movie, indeed, takes place in the 1930s, chiefly at MGM, where Mankiewicz wrote or co-wrote dozens of screenplays, and at San Simeon, the seaside estate of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, the model (needless to say) for Charles Foster Kane, who was (who knew?) a chum of Mank’s.
One inevitable element of historical movies is the scene, usually wince-making, in which some famous person first appears onscreen: “Van Gogh, meet Gaughin. He’ll never amount to anything.” In this department, Mank outdoes them all. At MGM, Mank walks aspiring scribe Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), newly-arrived from New York, into a room and introduces him to the contract writers: “Mr. Kaufman” (“George is fine”), “Mr. Perelman,” “the great Charles MacArthur,” “my brother Joe,” and “the one and only Ben Hecht.” Then they all troop over to the office of “the great David O.,” who’s with another guy: “You all know von Sternberg.” (Just in case your idea of an old movie is Forrest Gump, these are all legendary names.)
And we have yet to meet MGM honcho Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Hearst (Charles Dance), whose acquaintance Mank makes through Lederer, the cousin of Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davis (Amanda Seyfried). Mank soon becomes a regular at Hearst’s star-studded parties at San Simeon, where he serves as a sort of court jester, invariably being the only guest to challenge his host’s conservative politics.
Which finally brings us to the real center of this movie: politics.
You see, Mank is a socialist. It’s made clear early on that this is a very good thing. At one point in the movie we learn that this seemingly hard-hearted slob dug deep into his pockets to save, singlehandedly, an entire village of Jews from the Nazis. We’re plainly expected to link this act of benevolence to his socialist politics.
By contrast, both Hearst and Mayer are presented as being royally indifferent to the suffering of others. No sooner does Mayer come onscreen than we see him on a sound stage, telling employees (from stars to gaffers) that the terrible state of the economy compels him to cut their salaries. Later, at a San Simeon soirée, Norma Shearer (Jessie Cohen), just back from Europe, describes the outspoken anti-Semitism she encountered in Berlin. Hearst is sanguine: “Hitler won’t be around for long.” Mayer, also present, declares his refusal to pull MGM films out of the lucrative German market just because of a few Nazis.
And – guess what? – both Hearst and Mayer are Republicans. Indeed, Mayer is GOP state chairman. As the 1934 election for governor of California approaches, the two titans ponder with dread the candidacy of Upton Sinclair (played by, no kidding, Bill Nye the Science Guy). Sinclair was not only a celebrated socialist author; he was the face of the End Poverty in California movement, whose aggressive, Soviet-style plans for economic recovery made FDR’s New Deal programs – which were disastrous enough – look unambitious by comparison. With Hearst’s financing, Mayer produces a number of short anti-Sinclair films, which play a key role in the socialist’s subsequent defeat. Mank’s moral outrage over all this leads to an explosive climactic scene at San Simeon in which he burns his bridges to both Hearst and Mayer. We’re also meant to understood that Mank ended up writing Kane, six years later, to get back at Hearst for Sinclair’s election loss.
Ah, yes, Kane. What happened to Citizen Kane? Where do Kane, and Orson Welles, fit into this tale? Well, we hear Welles (Tom Burke) on the other end of a phone call a couple of times. Plus, along with Kane producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), he makes a couple of appearances at Mank’s desert hideaway, where they discuss the script and fight over screen credit.
But all this is marginal to the real story of Mank.
Simply put, Fincher tantalizes us by promising a movie about Welles and Kane, but ends up giving us Upton Sinclair and the 1934 California gubernatorial election – along with the same left-wing political lecture we’re always getting from Hollywood. And what makes the lecture in Mank especially galling is that it comes at a time when the brand of politics it’s pushing are dragging the state of California down the tubes.
To be sure, Mank isn’t as repellent as Trumbo (2015), which also paid tribute to a Golden Age screenwriter. Dalton Trumbo, the best-paid writer of his time in any genre, was a card-carrying member of the Communist Party, which means, of course, that he was a faithful servant of Stalin; and Trumbo, with Bryan Cranston in the lead role, was a staggering whitewash of Communism. Alongside it, Mank seems almost benign.
In any event, my outsized admiration for Fincher’s previous work disinclines me to blame him entirely for his film’s politics. His late dad wrote this thing, but couldn’t get it produced during his lifetime; Fincher fils, by taking on the job, was plainly performing an act of filial loyalty, and far be it for me to criticize that.
Besides, all the elements of Mank for which a director can reasonably be held accountable are uniformly splendid. So are the black-and-white cinematography (Erik Messerschmidt) and production design (Donald Graham Burt). Unlike many of today’s films and TV series set in the early to mid-twentieth century (notably Netflix’s idiotic Hollywood), Mank not only gets the costumes right but also the feel and look and language. Oldman, as ever, is wonderful. Even the script, when it’s not being preachy, has wit and sensitivity.
This movie, in short, has many virtues. Too bad that at bottom it’s yet another condescending attempt by Tinseltown to propagandize the deplorables.