Mank chronicles the span of time in which Herman Mankiewicz, the bedridden studio screenwriter who in just 60 days cranked out the script for what would become the greatest piece of cinema of his generation, Citizen Kane. However, this isn’t really a film about the act or process of writing Citizen Kane, and it’s even less about actually making it. The film can be best understood, as most great films can, not as a retelling of events as they unfolded, but rather a cinematic recreation of the zeitgeist those events produced. Mank takes the audience along for the ride of the experiences that made Herman Mankiewicz. And while the circumstances themselves may not be presented exactly as they transpired, the feelings they evoked in Mankiewicz are perfectly captured and conveyed.
David Fincher is by no means a stranger to films steeped in societal commentary. Perhaps the greatest cinematic triumph of his career came in the form of the 2010 biopic drama, The Social Network, which presented a critical portrayal of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg as well as the world that rewards him. Now helming a script written by his father Jack before he passed, Fincher once again delivers prescient commentary on our times, this time by turning back the clock to 1939.
Those familiar with the film Citizen Kane will immediately recognize the commentary on William Randolph Hearst’s political career; for those who haven’t it’s more obscured. In 1906, Hearst mounted a robust campaign for governor as a billionaire donning the voice of the working class people who gobbled up his provocative and salacious newspaper, while castigating the elite and the powerful who challenged his empire. The parallels to our current predicament don’t need to be spelled out, but the perfect irony that Citizen Kane is President Trump’s favorite film can perhaps raise a chuckle to stifle the tears.
Fincher not only challenges the moral authority of towering industry figures during the many scenes set at Hearst’s sprawling estate the film dubbed “Xanadu,” based on his real life Hearst Castle ranch which spanned over 240,000 acres in San Simeon, California, but he also takes careful consideration to include the political alternatives of the time. During a scene at Xanadu celebrating Louis Meyer’s birthday, Hearst is depicted downplaying the threat of Hitler in Germany. Mankiewicz argues otherwise and later interjects to correct the group’s red-baiting portrayal of socialism by stating socialism is “sharing the wealth,” whereas communism is “sharing poverty.”
Which leads into the most unique element of Fincher’s 11th feature film: how comfortable it is taking detours into niche politics of old, and quite frankly celebrating the Socialists. In an unexpected but certainly not objectionable fashion, Mank reminds America of an alternative road that was not taken.
The formula for Hollywood cinema since its inception was to commodify inspiring leaders, in many instances capturing luminaries on the left and divorcing them completely from their more “radical” politics and highlighting their personal characteristics in a heroic and otherworldly manner. With Herman Mankiewicz we see almost the direct inversion of this.
According to most historical accounts, Mank, in reality, was no principled lefty and certainly not a socialist — in all likelihood he was more of a moderate with a bone to pick. However, this hardly undermines the point the Finchers are trying to make with the story. What is worth noting is the fact that this major Hollywood production made its character more Socialist to make them MORE likeable. Which is why the Finchers fudge with facts when it comes to many of the moving moments of morality.
Indeed, there was a lot of creative liberty taken to shape Mankiewicz into a moral lefty. Take for example the scene in which Mankiewicz refused to contribute to the campaign of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 opponent, the incumbent Frank Merriam, as well as the climactic scene where Mank compares the political career of Hearst to Don Quixote, in what would eventually become the story of Citizen Kane, to Hearst’s face at dinner.
For all the name dropping of Sinclair, he appears in the film only briefly, giving an outdoor campaign speech in a run down part of town. The cameo of Sinclair, played by Bill Nye, is one of the many deviations the Finchers take from the supposed plot line of the making of Citizen Kane to give context to the world that brought about its inception and to contribute to the making of a leftist hero of the protagonist. The studios were willing to stop at nothing to crush the candidate who was running to end poverty in their state, a concept that was unspeakably unacceptable. Hearst himself had been feuding with Sinclair since 1919, when Sinclair published The Brass Check, which was relentlessly critical of both Hearst and the newspaper business at large.
The character Shelly Metcalf, a test-shot director for MGM played by Jamie McShane, serves a stand-in for the everyday working man under a capitalist system. He participates in the production of the phony newsreels even though he knows it is morally objectionable, because he knows that it will be beneficial for his career at MGM, something he desperately longs for. He reassures himself by telling Mankiewicz that no one is foolish enough to fall for the fake newsreels.
However, when Sinclair loses the race to Gov. Merriam, Metcalf feels the overwhelming pain of his culpability, ultimately taking his own life out of both remorse for his actions and despair over his own situation. He is ultimately there to represent the working class and the struggles they face overcoming capitalism, the temptation to sacrifice their broader political beliefs for their own temporary gains when the opportunity arises, while also underscoring the much more serious moral value system, which the opulent so easily part with that the working class cannot. With this scene, the Finchers are once again placing the moral authority with the proletariat.
This is presented as the final straw for Mankiewicz, and while it’s true that the phony newsreels weren’t created in the exact way they were depicted in the movie, the truth was remarkably similar. MGM did use a test-shot director to create phony newsreels in the 1934 gubernatorial election and according to NBC the real life producer Irving Thalberg once said “a fair election is a contradiction in terms.” The same is true for the disgusting maneuvers like seeding rumors that the studios were moving to Florida as a threat to the workers who established roots in California and hoped to expand the welfare state and end poverty. Which is why the studio executives even stooped to sequestering wages for campaign contributions when they no longer felt they could justify dipping into their own pockets.
These financial contributions to political campaigns naturally did not go unrewarded. Marion Davies, the longtime girlfriend of Hearst, blurts out during the aforementioned birthday party scene that she “heard pops [WRH] on the phone helping pick the presidents cabinet like casting a movie,” sort of letting the cat out of the bag. Even among a friendly crowd of like-minded aristocracy, this behavior is viewed as completely gauche and the room falls silent, as it is uncouth to mention the crushing power and corruption the opulent dirty their hands with. She then apologizes for saying something obvious, demeans herself, and exits the scene. Anything that punctures the comfortable worldview the elite have created is entirely unacceptable.
Down to the nuts and bolts of the film, the black and white cinematography, the classic Hollywood scene set up, and largely stationary camera serves to remind just how far we’ve come from Hollywood’s golden age of political corruption, turns out we’ve hardly moved an inch. Through the seemingly antiquated aesthetic decision, Fincher underscores the stagnancy of our political situation, as we find ourselves in a strikingly similar predicament nearly one century later. The film is a tremendous, unexpected, and welcome addition to the recent surge in class conscious cinema, and Mank is perhaps America’s most bold contribution to pierce the mainstream.