I’m tipsy, and I’m thinking about Mank, both the movie and the man. I like to think he’d enjoy the thought of somebody drinking and writing about a portrayal of himself almost 70 years after his death. Maybe I’m wrong. What I do know is that Mank is a great movie.
Mank is also Fincher’s most revealing work to date. It is an epic drama that conveys what he has to say about films and the people behind them. Fincher isn’t exactly known for his warmth as a storyteller. The ending of The Game and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button are the possible exceptions, but even those are about how death is coming for us all. Mank is a rare life-affirming experience from the filmmaker, about the importance of people, not films.
(This post contains spoilers for Mank.)
Mank is the nickname for writer Herman J. Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman). The nonlinear story depicts the Oscar-winning writer during both his heyday in Hollywood and later, nearing the end of his career when he’s writing the script for Citizen Kane. It’s a story that transitions through swaths of time without a single bump in the road, except the one that leaves Mankiewicz convalescing in bed.
The wordsmith is his own worst enemy and his own best friend, but he’s also admirable through Fincher’s lens. There’s a bit of hero worship on display for this artist learning to fight for due credit when Citizen Kane comes around. In Mank’s younger days, he was full of energy and hubris like Orson Welles (Tom Burke), but he didn’t know how to play the game like another character ahead of their time, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Their relationship is the beating heart of the movie. They are cut from the same cloth and recognize it. The scribe and the actor relish booze, playful language, and good laughs. They also struggle with their place in time and the industry, as well as alcoholism.
In one of the most evocative walk-and-talk scenes in years, Mank and Marion stroll around William Randolph Heart’s (Charles Dance) mansion. Similar to the caged animals they pass, they’re entertainers trapped. They walk freely and happily with one another, but they are confined to their spots on Hollywood’s ladder. Visually, the walk-and-talk is stunning, but the real sense of awe is the connection forged between these two friends. I couldn’t help but wonder if Seyfried and Oldman’s collaboration in Red Riding Hood, of all movies, led to such a believable intimacy here. It’s their affection for one another, that level of vulnerability, that breaks new ground for Fincher.
Fincher doesn’t believe in making comforting movies, so of course, he even makes us question for a second the authenticity of his film’s beautiful friendship. At the beginning of the story, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) asks if he knew Marion Davies. “If anyone did…” he replies, to suggest no one did. The director often portrays people in his stories as playing roles. Nick and Amy played the perfect couple in Gone Girl, the narrator created a role for himself in Fight Club, and John Doe cast himself in the sick biblical story he’s telling in Se7en. Mark Zuckerberg was trying to be an asshole, too. Mank and Davies once played their parts in the industry, too: the charming actress, and the witty writer. At the end, though, they’re no longer playing parts. They’re no longer under contract.
Mank’s reliability as a narrator also makes us question his relationship with the starlet and wife of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Most of their relationship is portrayed through old drunken memories, heightened by booze and a writer’s grandiose imagination. Even when it comes to a lovely friendship, Fincher calls bullshit a little bit. Joy is always fleeting in Fincher movies. “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is,” Benjamin Button said.
Years after the pair’s “glory days,” two are reunited for a picnic, a picnic in a Fincher film (without a murderer present). The music swells with such sweetness from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, two other lords of darkness showing a more tender side here as well. The director contrasts the pleasant image with weightier emotions, but still, it’s unmistakably a scene from Fincher’s heart. Both Marion and Mank have grown, with the latter learning he isn’t always the smartest guy in the room and that he, too, misread Marion and her love for Hearst.
Fincher’s compassion is more earnest than ever. To be fair, there’s usually empathy to go along with the macabre in his work. The director has been called cold, but for me, that’s never been the case. Look at the rebirth in The Game, the paternal relationship between Somerset and David Mills in Se7en, the accepting relationship between Nick and Margot in Gone Girl, and the obsession eating away at good people searching for the truth in Zodiac.
There’s also the extraordinary yet average man grasping on to time in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and the destruction of a genuine friendship in The Social Network – the loss of something real in exchange for something artificial – between Mark Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin. The lucid pacing and framing keep the eye and mind engaged at all times, but Fincher does tell his stories with feeling, and that’s what keeps us coming back for more.
It’s the emotions that rang loudest, for me, in Mank, though. Fincher hits every note and lands every blow, especially near the end. There’s a quiet but especially devastating scene in which Mank, as drunk as we’ve ever seen him, is told, “He likes the way you talk, not the way you write.” The rare silence from Mank is somehow the loudest he gets in the whole movie. The encounter is one of his – or any writer’s for that matter – personal fears come to life. Yes, it’s a champagne problem; the movie is full of champagne for reasons beyond alcoholism. But what once defined the writer’s self-worth is squashed in an instant with one line that wounds him for a long time. The insult may come from a clown wielding power, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), but nonetheless, it hurts.
Not to glamorize on-screen or real misery, but the lead character does become a better artist for the pain he’s suffered. Mank turns that pain into something joyful, his best work yet. Remember, “I need an idea,” Mark Zuckerberg said after getting dumped. Pain is sometimes art in Fincher’s movies, but that’s truer than ever in this instance. Pain helps create a masterpiece.
In many of the director’s movies, you can hear him laughing at his characters, kicking them while they’re down. He’s not laughing at Mank, Marion, and absolutely not Orson Welles – Fincher’s camera is especially loving of the legendary filmmaker. Like Fincher, Welles was a wunderkind himself who reached remarkable success well before the age of 30. The once in-demand music video director must see himself in Welles, a young and meticulous filmmaker who fought his battles to manifest visions that lasted beyond his life. (Based on what Fincher’s collaborators have said, he has a similar endgame in mind.)
Consider how Welles is introduced. He doesn’t first appear in a meeting or a walk and talk – it’s as if the voice of God is over the phone. The shot introducing the filmmaker in the flesh even has a sense of majesty. Welles was a larger-than-life man, but Fincher depicts him, the director, as the great and powerful Oz. It says a lot. The writer is the drunk in the hospital bed, and the director is the supernatural force that appears next to that bed. Fincher has stated nothing but respect for screenwriters, but still, something about that image of the writer and director makes me laugh. I imagine Fincher finds it funny, too.
Throughout Jack Fincher’s script, the making of Citizen Kane isn’t that important. It’s not as crucial as the making of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the proud man we see at the end delivering his Oscar speech. Yes, credit matters, but according to the Fincher family, people matter more. As inspiring as the writer’s journey is towards artistic pride and finding his voice, it’s his value of life, his friends (including Rita Alexander), and rescuing villagers from Germany that are his defining achievements.
Good people and good deeds make Herman J. Mankiewicz whole, not Citizen Kane. When the screenwriter is loathing the rich swine around him on election night, they’re drowning him as much as the booze. After the drowning, he still runs to his friend in need, the fictional character Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane). Hollywood may forget Shelly Metcalf, but the writer never forgets. Movies are just movies to Fincher, and movies are just movies to Mank.
In Fincher’s depiction of Hollywood, movies – even one of the greatest movies of all time – aren’t that significant. Lives and friendships…now that’s significant. Here is a rare movie about Hollywood from Hollywood that doesn’t pat itself on the back with an air of self-importance. The director isn’t someone who’ll celebrate Hollywood. Even in the opening text, the filmmaker takes a swipe at the machine.
Fincher prioritizes people over credits. The director’s love for Mank and Marion, in particular, moved me and maybe said more about Fincher, the man, than Fincher the craftsman. Similar to his protagonist, he slowly reveals how much he cares over the course of Mank.
The world is cruel in Fincher’s films. He doesn’t sugarcoat. And yet, Mank left me happy. Not about the state of the world, but about caring characters like Herman J. Mankiewicz, Marion Davies, and hell, David Fincher. “Some people go to the movies to be reminded that everything’s okay,” he once said. “I don’t make those kinds of movies. That, to me, is a lie. Everything’s not okay.”
That’s certainly true in Mank, but Fincher’s latest piece of work made me feel like it was.
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