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.