Just a Writer
Mank is streaming on Netflix
France has Voltaire, Simone de Beauvoir, Marcel Proust, and so many others. They’re justifiably proud of the literary output of their citizens, with thousands of pages waxing rhapsodic about philosophy, the arts, politics, and so much more. Not to be outdone is England, with immortal wordsmiths like Douglas Adams, Charlotte Bronte, Charles Dickens, and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, William Shakespeare.
You know what country, deep down in its bones, doesn’t really care about writers? That would be the good old United States of America. It’s appalling, considering the talent of so many of our writers. James Baldwin, Harper Lee, Washington Irving, Kurt Vonnegut, and Toni Morrison are just a few. They should be praised to the heavens, but too often they’re either persecuted or ignored.*
There’s a real and legitimate need for entertainment, particularly in this foul year of our Lord 2020. Yet Americans like to take the concept further. We don’t like to think and we don’t want to be challenged. That view is borne out by the ways so many of us view the past, view each other, and choose elected representatives. However, in 2020, more Americans are reading. Publishers Weekly tells us that book sales have gone up 6.4 percent in the first nine months of this year, and all it took for that to happen was the fraying of the social contract, the near ruin of the economy, and the deaths of more than 290,000 people from COVID-19.**
That non-appreciation of the written word extends to film. It makes sense to think of it as a visual medium, but I prefer to think of it more as a collaborative medium. A Steven Spielberg film happens due to the efforts of cinematographers, stunt performers, editors, and a battalion of other people working together. Oh yeah, and the screenwriter. Kind of a big deal. So what happens when you have a screenwriter working in an industry who doesn’t particularly care about his contributions, one who blithely gives up his writing credit, then writes the best work of his life and decides that maybe he wants that credit back? You have Mank, the newest film from director David Fincher.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is not exactly living his best life. To call him a drinker is rather an understatement, and in 1940, he’s gained a reputation as a dazzling writer, a razor-sharp wit, and a massive alcoholic. A broken leg from a car wreck plants him in a secluded house, with only his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and German housekeeper Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann) for company.
From time to time, John Houseman (Sam Troughton) stops by with directives from the boss. The boss would be wunderkind filmmaker Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who is riding a wave of nearly unparalleled creative freedom. RKO Pictures loves Welles nearly as much as he loves himself, and they have given him carte blanche to do anything he likes for his next film project.
Jumping back ten years earlier, Mank’s brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) arrives in Hollywood, a new job as a screenwriter awaiting him. Mank has sent him a telegram that reads, “Millions to be made here and your only competition is idiots.” Studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) drips with cynicism toward the motion picture business, proclaiming “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anyone tell you differently.” Mank heeds this lesson well.
They say a cynic is a failed idealist, and cynicism seems to have seeped into Mank’s bones. A friendship with movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) begins to change things, as does a cautious acquaintanceship with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). As we bounce through time, we see the genesis of Mank’s greatest work, a story about a man who gains the whole of the world, loses his soul, and pines for the innocent bliss of childhood, represented by a sled named “Rosebud.”
Up til now, David Fincher hasn’t released a film since 2014’s Gone Girl. During the last six years, he’s occupied his time with the outstanding Netflix series Mindhunter, House of Cards, and other projects. He’s one of our best filmmakers, a famously meticulous and..um…let’s go with exacting director. While other denizens of Hollywood fall into franchises or work hand-in-claw with the studios to produce Oscar bait, Fincher moves in his own direction. He has no interest in trends or the desires of the audience, which is a good thing.
I’m willing to bet that most people, while familiar with Citizen Kane, have never seen it. Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher wrote the screenplay for Mank back in 2003. The original plan was for Kevin Spacey*** and Jodie Foster to star, but it never came to fruition. No studio would agree to make a black and white movie about the seedy underbelly of Hollywood’s Golden Age. Luckily, Netflix backed up a tractor-trailer full of money to Fincher’s house. The end result is a film shot in a dreamy black and white, made confidently using filmmaking tools from the 1940s and the 2020s. For a story about the greatest movie ever made, the movie never gets hung up on reverence for its subject. Even Fincher’s darkest films have a playful undercurrent, and this might be his funniest film. With a drink in his hand, or at least one nearby, we see Mank rising through the studio system, and mingling with the most powerful people in America. The subject of numerous scenes is always serious, while the tone is never staid.
I clearly have an affinity for word slingers, but do I think Mank was persecuted to the same degree as, say, James Baldwin? Oh no, not even a little, and neither does screenwriter Jack Fincher. His screenplay isn’t about someone suffering for their art. Mank wouldn’t have had the foggiest what white privilege was, but that along with a foolhardy sense of gusto pushes him into situations lesser people would fear to tread. Mank is always ready with a quip, and like a suicidally brave court jester, he’s always willing to roast the most powerful person in the room. If I read Fincher’s screenplay correctly, he’s not writing a love letter to Hollywood of yesteryear. Then, like now, the industry was filled with crooks, incompetents, and the occasional bruised idealist. The characters lurch between mocking the system and pushing to create something that transcends it. This feels like an appropriate response to me.
When we talk about the magic of the movies, there’s more to it than dazzling CGI. For example, does it matter that the 62-year old Gary Oldman is playing Herman Mankiewicz in his 30s and 40s, and looks nothing like him? Nope! That’s because Oldman captures the essence of Mank, his blazing intelligence, ferocious sense of humor, and total captivity to his addictions. It’s a great performance and I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to see Oldman win for Best Actor. He’s ably supported by an excellent cast, and giving everyone their due would make an already too long review even longer. I’ll mention Charles Dance, who plays Hearst with a kind of noble rot, a magisterial figure clearly on his way out. Perhaps the best performance comes from Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies. She plays a sharp and perceptive woman, one who understands perfectly the kind of man she’s chosen as her benefactor. Seyfried and Oldman create a wonderful friendship that always comes up to the edge of intimacy, then skitters away. She does work that’s excellent and specific, and I appreciated her commitment and intelligence.
Who is Mank for? That’s a question I think that doesn’t matter, ultimately. What it is is a piece of art that will likely attract a niche audience. The kinds of people who are enchanted by the mythos of Hollywood and are clear-eyed enough to know it’s always been a business. The kinds of people that, when surrounded by duplicitous images and, yes, fake news, will respect the power of the written word.
On second thought? Perhaps more of us care about writers than I thought.
*Also appalling is that the United States doesn’t have an honest to God cultural department that exists to promote American art. Not patriotic art, because that’s actually what we call propaganda.
**That reminds me of the famous quote, often wrongly attributed to Winston Churchill, “The Americans will always do the right thing — after they have tried everything else.” It was actually uttered by Israeli diplomat Abba Eban.
***At least that bullet was dodged.