Movies

David Fincher's Mank Is a Scathing Portrait of a Smug, Out-of-Touch Hollywood

The Netflix release paints a picture of movie-industry arrogance, smugness, hypocrisy, and condescension—especially when it comes to politics. 

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It would be easy to dismiss Mank as an elaborate form of Hollywood navel-gazing, another Oscar season entry pandering to the movie business' everlasting obsession with its own history. 

The movie, which debuts on Netflix this week, tells the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz—the titular "Mank"—a successful rewrite man who did dozens of uncredited touch-ups, as he struggled to write the screenplay that would become Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. The movie dramatizes decades-old film geek arguments about whether Welles or Mankiewicz, who shared official credit and an Oscar for Kane's script, was more responsible for the film's development; like critic Pauline Kael, it sides firmly with Mank. 

Shot in creamy black and white and directed with knowing, referential verve by Hollywood's most proficient stylist, David Fincher, the movie is a technically adept portrait of movie history, and a lush retelling of how one of Hollywood's most enduring masterpieces was made, just in time for Oscar season.

But this isn't David Fincher's The Artist. Look a little closer, and you'll find a work that trades in precious little warmth or nostalgia and far more in the way of sly and even subversive critique. This is a movie about Hollywood's self-obsession, but instead of coddling that impulse and reaffirming the industry's essential greatness, it offers a scathing and surprisingly subversive picture of movie-industry arrogance, smugness, hypocrisy, and condescension—especially when it comes to politics. 

Told largely in flashbacks, the story follows Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he struggles to craft a screenplay for a young Orson Wells. A drunk and a wit, Mank is holed up in a recovery home with a nurse and a transcriptionist, churning out pages and cutting remarks. As he writes, the movie zips back and forth between his memories of working within the studio system, running into the era's giants: Not only Welles, but producer David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), studio chieftain Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (a surly, imperious Charles Dance), who would provide much of the inspiration for Citizen Kane

As you might expect from a film set against the backdrop of movie studio history, there's a fair amount of talky back and forth about how movies work and what they mean to the world: Mank finds himself in discussions about the need to get people into theaters, and the need for writers as film moves into the sound era. In one amusing bit, he and his team of writers improv a story pitch to Selznick that's essentially a warmed-over version of Frankenstein—just after Selznick complains that he doesn't want to produce shlocky monster films. He thinks he's too good for pulp, but it turns out he's willing to buy it when it's sold the right way.

Mank is a movie about a changing Hollywood, as the industry's elevated but fragile self-regard is rocked by technological and social pressures. Which is to say, it's a movie about Hollywood today, the way that streaming services like Netflix have upended the theatrical business model, exploding not only industry norms but its entire sense of identity and self-worth. 

What Mank offers, then, is not cinematic nostalgia but a kind of soul searching: What do movies mean in the world? Do they really matter as anything more than trifles and amusements? And what about the people who make them? They have such high regard for themselves, as wealthy influencers over ordinary people's minds and ideas—yet what they do, for the most part, is traffic in cheap thrills. Even worse, they know it. 

This sort of Hollywood ego-busting is at its most pointed in an extended subplot about Upton Sinclair's bid to win the 1934 California governor's race. Sinclair was running as a socialist; his campaign slogan was EPIC—"End Poverty in California." Mank depicts studio boss Louis B. Mayer's real-life opposition to that campaign, as he used studio resources and organized stars to support a Republican challenger—all at the same time he was forcing his own staff to take substantial pay cuts. Mankiewicz is recruited to back the GOP candidate but refuses, and in the process falls out of favor with his studio overlords. 

A surface read of this subplot might suggest a fairly conventional form of left-leaning Hollywood politics: the screenwriter hero is on the side of the socialist who wanted to end poverty in California, while the studio bosses were greedy capitalist overlords backing a Republican. If you want to read it that way, you certainly can. 

But I think Mank is really getting at something far more subversive. Like I said, this is an elaborate critique of the movie business—not only as it existed in the 1930s, but as it exists today. 

And what it's saying isn't so much that the socialist was good and the Republican was bad, but that studio meddling in politics is inherently unseemly, an artifact of the fragile egos of movie industry titans. Studio execs and filmmakers rake in cash producing junk cinema they believe is beneath them and see their viewers—the ones who make them fabulously wealthy—as a bunch of unsophisticated rubes. To salve their egos, they meddle in politics, using their connections and their resources to back dull candidates who they expect to do their bidding. Sound familiar? 

In the 1930s, Mank suggests, Hollywood wasn't run by smug, condescending liberal hacks. It was run by smug, condescending Republican hacks. But either way, the defining characteristics were smugness and condescension.

The overlords of Hollywood have always thought they were better than everyone else. Mank isn't the hero because he self-righteously refuses to back the studio-friendly GOP candidate. He's the hero (or at least the anti-hero) because he sees through their self-important, self-righteous facades, forcing them to confront the unseemly truth about how little they really matter. In the movie's climactic scene, he shows up drunk to an ostentatious dinner party at a palatial estate where both Mayer and Hearst are in attendance—and pukes all over the dining room floor. Sometimes Mank is subtle. Other times, well.

A movie as lavish and cleverly constructed as Mank can't truly be said to hate movies themselves. Few directors can match Fincher's sheer technical mastery. He has an obvious fondness for the form, and it's amusing to watch the director of Seven, Gone Girl, and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo wrestle with Hollywood's love-hate relationship to slickly produced pulp. But it is deeply cynical about the movie business and the arrogant self-absorption of those who run it.

Confident, convoluted, chaotic, intricate—and possibly brilliant—Mank is, perhaps appropriately, Fincher's most difficult work, the hardest to simply enjoy. But it's nothing if not self-aware.

In one scene, Mankiewicz is told that the script he's working on is too elaborate and confusing, too deeply coded with layers of meaning. It's a "bit of a jumble" that will be hard for viewers to understand. It's an embedded self-critique, the movie acknowledging the ways in which it, like its hero, can be cantankerous and frustrating, a bit of a mess. But Mankiewicz dismisses that criticism, noting that the narrative is one big circle, that it all comes around in the end. Their job as filmmakers, he seems to suggest, is to make a good movie and let the viewer grapple with the complexities. Trust the audience. They'll understand. 

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  1. This is high quality movie criticism. Deserves an award. You’ve found your niche, Suderman

    1. I don’t get this article. The progressive liberals ( or libertarians) are the good guys. Like in the Marvel comic book movies…

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  2. Talk about talkies changing the movies–the death of the theater chains we’re witnessing is likely to have an even greater impact.

    Yesterday, WarnerBrothers announced that every single movie they plan to release in 2021 will be released on HBOMax (the streaming app) at the same time they’re released in the theater. I noticed it in particular because they said they would release the new Dune that way.

    I knew there was a new Dune production in the works, but how disappointing to hear that it would be a single movie! The problem with attempts to capture Dune before on film was that you can’t fit it all into a two to three hour movie. It needs to be a series. Just the first book in the series needs a good 10, hour long episodes. It should be like The Mandalorian, which has 8 one hour episodes per season and has a lot less to say than “Dune”.

    I also read yesterday that Amazon is spending up to a $billion (with a “b”) on what I understand to be precursor to “The Lord of the Rings”–presumably based on material from “The Silmarillion” if it’s set thousands of years before “The Lord of the Rings”. I read that the first season will be 20 episodes, and they’ve already ordered the second season of another 20 episodes. There are three more seasons beyond that already written that Amazon has optioned.

    The two to three hour movie could die with the theater chains. The reason they were that long was because that’s about how long people were willing to sit in a dark theater. If we’re not sitting in a dark theater anymore, then apart from art movies, why do I want to see a condensed version of “Dune”? Why isn’t it a 10 episode season? WarnerBrothers is smart to release Dune simultaneously on HBOMax. I wouldn’t bother to go see it otherwise.

    Movies will be for kids’ slumber parties.

    Maybe The Godfather, Citizen Kane, or Raging Bull wouldn’t have been better if they were cut into however many episodes. Because The Sopranos was longer, it could both directly critique The Godfather and say what it had to say. We should be done with short stories pretty soon. Bring on the Tolstoy and the Wagner. I’m looking for more than most directors can give me in two hours.

    1. Is DUNE gonna suck? I don’t care for Twinkothy Chalamete or the girl playing Chani.

      1. It can’t be done in two to three hours.

        1. You know what else can’t be done in two or three hours?

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        2. The plan is to split the first book into two movies.

      2. It looks dope. It seems they’re taking license with some things. (gender swaps, technology shortcuts, etc.) But I’m planning to see it for the visuals at the very least.

    2. It should be like The Mandalorian, which has 8 one hour episodes per season and has a lot less to say than “Dune”.

      What’s really remarkable about The Mandalorian, is that it’s largely keeping what little shreds are left of the Star Wars IP’s reputation intact by fully embracing fan service and toy marketing, and reflecting the Buck Rogers-type of storytelling aesthetic that inspired Lucas to create Star Wars in the first place.

      Ironically, the only really compelling character development I’ve ever seen in this universe since Return of the Jedi was the Dark Horse comics series on the Clone Wars and its immediate aftermath, which effectively portrayed Anakin’s descent from idealistic Jedi Knight to the imperious, stone-cold killer of Darth Vader. It’s not really an accident that the most popular film scene in Star Wars in the last 20 years was Vader slaughtering the rebel soldiers in Rogue One.

      1. Rogue One being the only Star Wars film since the original three that was actually worth watching (much less making).

    3. I believe the plan is to do DUNE in two parts. You can see the trailer, but part 1 likely ends with the betrayal/death of a certain central character, political upheaval, and banishment of other central characters.

      Agree with your point though. Series/miniseries are the way of the future. Am I going to pay $20 to watch a movie at home (like Mulan?) no. Would I pay $20 to watch a series like The Boys, Breaking Bad, Watchmen, or The Mandalorian? Definitely.

    4. That’s the problem with Watchmen too.

      1. So, you’re saying that nobody watches the Watchmen?

  3. What’s easy to dismiss is Netflix and Hollywood completely and totally. Garbage in is garbage out.

  4. You had me at Fincher and Oldman.

  5. Isn’t it odd that a review of a movie about a screenwriter completely ignores the name of its screenwriter, as though the thing wrote itself — or somehow was conjured magically in the imagination of David Fincher? (It was in fact written by Fincher’s late father, Jack Fincher.)
    This is another continuing artifact of Hollywood history, the myth that the director is somehow the ‘creator’ of the piece. Let it be clearly noted: the creator is the writer. That should be the default assumption. In special cases that may not be so; in those cases an explanation is owed. (Of course many times the director and writer are the same person, but this should be acknowledged; there is always a writer.)

    One other comment. How did graphic vomiting become so trendy in recent films? (My hypothesis: it originated in the mind of some director, not a writer.)

    1. No, the writer only gives the seed that the director makes grow. It is the director who turns it from words on paper into “willing suspension of disbelief” on the part of the audience. Great books don’t make great movies without great direction, but great direction can make a great movie of a lackluster book.

      I think it was “The High and the Mighty” that Ernest K Gann was converting from book to screenplay, when he got a message from director William Wellman saying “The screenwriter is ruining your book!” Wellman knew what he wanted to see on the screen, and what he wanted in the script to put it there.

      1. I’ve heard that Stephen King did not care for what Stanley Kubrick did with “The Shining” but you’re right-Kubrick made the movie according to his vision, not King’s and I think he understood how to bring the book to life on film in ways that King did not appreciate.

      2. Did you hear about the blonde who wanted to make it in Hollywood, so she slept with the writer?

  6. “In the dialectic of the Hollywood left, capitalism is evil– except for the three-picture deal at Paramount, the Malibu mansion, the swimming pool and tennis court, the Mercedes Benz. Or as Marx might have framed it himself: ‘From each according to his credulity, to each according to his greed.'”

    1. “In the dialectic of the Hollywood left, capitalism is evil– except for the three-picture deal at Paramount, the Malibu mansion, the swimming pool and tennis court, the Mercedes Benz.

      Or the professional athlete that shills for Democrats and left-wing causes while marinating in bling.

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    2. Hobie Doyle?… You’re a Communist too?

  7. You have to give Suderman credit. Normally it takes a Chinese contortionist to twist themselves into the knots he did in order for a “libertarian” to defend a movie about an heroic socialist.

    1. I don’t know a lot of bout Mankiewicz’s politics, but apparently he refused to join the Writer’s Guild… which suggests he may not have been that sympathetic to the commies that ran Hollywood writers at the time.

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  9. Speaking of the way that studios have an outsized political influence: https://twitter.com/SpencerKlavan/status/1335007535070253057

  10. Couldn’t Suderman AT LEAST have spelled Orson Welles’s name the SAME WAY each time he used it?
    Who’s he talking about, anyway? H. G. Wells?
    Or maybe SOME EDITOR (remember editors?) notice it?

  11. That was a blaze of a film review with a sword of insight.

    Too bad that films of quality caliber do not reach audiences at high seasonal frequency.

    But producing film involves a lot of work from the bottom up & top down.

  12. So all of these supposed problems of Hollywood are clearly related to its place in capitalism, the movie has a critique of capitalism, but for the libertarian website, the culture war horseshit wins out over libertarian consistency.

    What do you expect a free market in movies to deliver? Enlightenment?

    1. Tony sez: “needs moar propaganda”!

      1. Why can’t libertarians make any good movies?

        Like you make the shittiest movies. And it’s all paid for by billionaire welfare.

        Do people become libertarians because they know they have to lock in their social power before anyone realizes you have no skills or value to society?

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