Mank: David Fincher invents the time machine

4 December, 2020

For many, Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941) is one of the best – if not the best – films ever made. With Mank, a feature that might woo the Oscars Academy next year, David Fincher creates both a time machine, throwing us in the midst of a Golden-Age Hollywood, as well as a microscope that investigates the process behind the creation of this iconic film. At the center of its attention lies, of course, Herman Mankiewicz – or Mank, in short, a screenwriter whose career is on the rocks due to his alcoholism, but especially due to his sharp tongue when addressing the era’s kingpins.

What must be said from the get-go is that some of David Fincher’s artistic choices will certainly alienate the audience. Shot in black and white, on a single-channel soundtrack (which has the particular reverberations of the era’s screenings), Mank looks exactly like a film from the thirties. The actors’ expansive gestures, the camera’s limited movement, the editing, and its rhythm are particular to that period in time, which contrasts with a contemporary audience’s expectations, thus transforming Mank into a retro wager onto which Fincher bets his money on. Which begs the question: if millions of people will press play on the film starting with the 4th of December, how many of them will watch it to its very end?

But a film is not defined by the ways in which it will be consumed, nor by how many. Mank is an analysis of the complex ways in which a film is created and of the immense power that is the privilege of cinema. The duality between arthouse and entertainment is also questioned, just as the indelible relationship between the film industry and politics. Beyond the enthusiastic plaudits or the reserves of some critics, Mank manages something that few other films do, and that is to show the ways in which film, as a commodity, can immediately become something else once you change the perspective from which you see it: for the audience it’s a two-hour session of escapism, for the producers it’s a source of profit, for the politicians it’s a tool for propaganda, and so on.

Considering it’s such a versatile medium, how can you manage to preserve your honesty? This is one of the great questions of Mank (both the film and the character, self-assuredly performed by Gary Oldman). Or, even better, when something is as fluid and as changing as cinema, can it still be sincere? Mank, the buffoon, is perfectly chosen as the magnifying glass through which Fincher studies the Hollowood of those days, without forgetting to reference the present as well.

For viewers interested in penetrating the underbelly of the industry, Mank is an excellent explainer of the crisscrossing forces and interests that lie behind it. It might be true that the stars steal the show, but each star has an army of producers, screenwriters, accountants, legal counsels, and so on at their backs. All have something to say about how a film will be shot, at least in the big studio system, and Fincher brings them all onto the screen, ambitious, avaricious, and sometimes even snide, drunk on their power and thirsty for even more. You can’t but laugh when a producer such as Louis B. Mayer (the second M of MGM) suddenly and emphatically pulls an ars gratia artis and be impressed when the same Mayer gives the best definition of film-as-commodity: “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.”

But Mank is not only operating at a macro level, but also at a micro, as the script for Citizen Kane is a concentration of all the pressures that art could ever be subjected to by the political. As Mankiewicz progresses with its script and successive drafts start floating around Hollywood, threats start to appear. Nobody has the guts to take on media tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), whose tentacles greased with money can reach just about any level of the American power. But who can say the truth about the king, if not the buffoon that is ignored by everyone?

Almost eight decades later, we know that the script which Mankiewicz toiled on for months on end, exiled by Orson Welled (Tom Burke) in a Californian ranch, far from the temptations of alcohol and Hollywood parties, would go on to become one of the most influential films of all time. At the time, it was just a possibility, a project under siege on all sides, a swan song for its screenwriter, and perjury for Hearst and his entourage. When history is written by the winners, in order to defeat the strongmen of the day you need faithful allies. And maybe that is the greatest reproach that we could bring to Fincher, that he puts a full stop to his story exactly when the battle starts to rage.

Mank is available on Netflix, starting with the 4th of December.

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Ștefan Dobroiu Ștefan Dobroiu
Born in Piteşti, Romania, in 1980, Ştefan is a graduate from the University of Bucharest, with a degree in Journalism and Communication Sciences. After trying his hand with financial journalism and photography (the latter still being very close to his heart), he put his career on a new path in 2006, when he became the senior editor of Cinemagia. He is also the Romania and Bulgaria correspondent for Cineuropa.org. At Films in Frame he recommends monthly the newest film trailers.