My favorite film of the year is one I'm biased to choose.
Let me tell you about my bias. If I go to a new film directed by one of my favorite directors, I go in having a great amount of trust. I mean, I feel safe. What I know, given to me by my trust, allows all other expectations to wait for me elsewhere while I truly live in-the-moment for the duration of the experience. I'm not always sitting down for a piece of entertainment, although one can always hope, as this should be the least of expectations. I'm not always hoping to enjoy what I'm about to watch, though. But when I sit down for a David Fincher movie, who is the finest director working today, there is no safety (this is "The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" director). Where I trust him...is knowing that nobody else could do it better.
My bias here...with "Mank"...has me very conflicted. Not only is it masterful movie making, but the story elements touch on politics and religion in such a manner that the writing feels like it's speaking just to me (these are, after all, two fascinating topics to the writer you're now reading). And not only that, but he's doing so in a charming classic-styled way that you'd see in movies like "Sunset Boulevard" (which is also about "old Hollywood"), which is to say not only are you being told stories in a lovingly entertaining way, but it's as if an old friend is using his grand dialect that friends of his describe as an art form. Gary Oldman fills this position splendidly as Mank himself surely did.
Now...is "Mank" that great? Or...am I just biased?
Is "Citizen Kane" required viewing? Citizen "Mank" serves not as a prequel, but more as a spiritual remake to the RKO Pictures classic. Let me offer some brutal honesty, here: I don't care about "casual audiences." Movies should be made for movie lovers (music seems made for specific fans as well), and I have little patience for people who choose to "Netflix n chill" (okay, I'm guilty here) or, worse, just put a movie on as a preventative measure against feeling lonely without background noise. Gotta say, on that note, "Mank" would be a pretty lovely radio show.
These times, they are a-changin'. I'm talkin' new Hollywood. I'm talkin' "old" Hollywood. "Mank" is a fast-talking charmer of the sort you would find commonplace in a good "classics" section organized by Netflix IF Netflix ever put such a worthy effort into showing their viewers real movies (Turner Classic Movies does a better job on HBO Max, and it's still pitiful). It's a sad world they've created when a David Fincher movie can't stay in the top 10 list on Netflix (it dropped off after day one) seemingly because of a lack of color.
Simply put, David Fincher (no stranger to biopics, he's the director of "The Social Network," and if I may call it a biopic, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button") saw the future when he imagined the power of Netflix. The entertainment giant backed him for a political satire called "House of Cards," making content produced by Netflix a force to be reckoned with. Now, they're almost killing themselves with such an overwhelming output that their own movies are easily lost in the shuffle (and is it just me, or does everything, even a 3 1/2 hour Scorsese picture, feel "made-for-tv?"). David Fincher (who also directed "Se7en" and "Zodiac") came back with another show for Netflix that he enjoyed directing called "Mindhunter," which is another brilliant concept, endlessly fascinating, but a Season 3 isn't even promised or guaranteed. Contracts no longer exist for it.
Now, with a big middle finger to Hollywood itself, Fincher is using his late father's script (surely a passion project) to show how easily Hollywood was and can be changed with his first-ever straight-to-the-small-screen film, "Mank." (His last effort was the anti-love story about two narcissists who get stuck in marriage by politics, "Gone Girl") This one, like his Netflix shows, is also centered by politics.
Set in the aftermath of the depression, the brutality of the affects is background for this picture. Hollywood writers, however, are making great money for people to spend their very hard-earned nickels and quarters on. The transition to "talkies" has been made, after all, so "anyone who can put three words together" is being called upon. Our main character, Mank, a screenwriter for the movies (he claims to be washed-up, no longer talented enough to do better than movies), has insight into the propaganda that became a common practice for Hollywood directors (and even more so for foreign film people, especially in Germany where their people would believe anything that was repeated enough, not unlike our red-hat-wearing fellow citizens these past four years). The propaganda of the day is vital to the style of picture "Citizen Kane" became, which is the film Orson Welles hired Mank to write about the real-life newspaper tycoon, William Hearst (not exactly a man who would gag on a silver spoon). "Citizen Kane" became famous for the multi-perspectives and fancy camera work mixed with quick-cuts and invisible special effects all working together to create some of the greatest story-telling techniques ever that would revolutionize Hollywood...but what also invests people into the world of "Citizen Kane" is the believable "newsreel"-style footage that begins the 1941 picture that is known to be "perfect," a very rare label appropriate for anything on film. Newsreel footage, shown here to be inspired by real "fake news." Remember, Orson Welles was no stranger to using realism to sell his product. This is the same man who made headlines for a science-fiction radio play ("War of the Worlds") that literally frightened listeners into believing aliens had invaded Earth (I'm unclear if this was literally literal, but I have seen the headlines, whether they were "fake news" or not).
Herman J. Mankiewicz, or "Mank," is the writer behind the show, a credit that also went to the infamous Orson Welles for the sole Academy Award the film won (Academy voters were apparently unaware of the legacy the picture would have). Welles, who directed "Kane" and hired Mank to write it. "Mank," as told by Jack Fincher (again, David's father), seeks to deny Welles this credit, rejecting any chance for a "love letter" to the film or Hollywood (Welles was decidedly anti-Hollywood anyway, described here as an "outsider"), but more like a warning not to believe everything we see and hear (always good advice, but be wary of people who tell you not to believe ANYthing you see and hear). In one atmospheric scene of the Fincher film, we're on a beach listening to radio. An interviewee is declaring her stance on exactly why she's voting Republican in the next election, complete with a story of her own victimhood. Our main character and his lovely date then suddenly recognize the voice of said Republican voter (no doubt she could now be considered a method actor as it seems unlikely she would actually be voting for the "socialist" on the Democrat ticket). She's an actress, not just a voter, and nothing of the sort she claimed to be. "I'd recognize that voice anywhere," says Mank, listening to the sorry voice of America that is as fake as the character she's playing.
Upton Sinclair (surprisingly played by...Bill Nye?) loses the election in 1934, believing the "phony newsreels" to be the fatal blows to his campaign. Mank, a fan, blames FDR, reminding us of the "hero" that would soon come to the rescue (a man who actually forced corporations and churches into anti-socialist efforts, bringing us to the divided states of America we see today, which is sadly not an irrelevant fact pertaining to this film...especially considering corporations have nearly destroyed today's Hollywood...and thanks to this virus, we're getting an advanced look at what could become of movie theaters).
The film is presented in a glorious 4K version, and a color version doesn't even exist. This is meant to not only show the 1930s, but feel like a film from the era, too. The soundtrack is complete with the sounds of film scratches and audio flaws, and the picture itself is marked-up with what characters in "Fight Club" (another Fincher picture) called "cigarette burns." "Mank" will be remembered as one of Fincher's less accessible films (people are avoiding this not only because of a lack of color, but it is quite the "talkie"), made for writers more than cinephiles (which I wish were given more attention, although "old Hollywood" is given screen time even though it feels like less than a cameo). I kept waiting for visual sequences a la David Fincher prior, almost forgetting that the style of the film itself was presenting to me a visual feast. Every frame of a Fincher picture a painting. Each is carefully crafted (he normally certainly pays his dues to the auteur of "pure cinema," Alfred Hitchcock), and yet it's not unusual for his scripts to keep our eyes glued to the screen. It is written for political junkies as well, sure, but ultimately this is a story about story. Story itself is used to tell about story itself. Where do stories come from? That's THE question this flick answers using one of the best movies of all time.
Just don't ask about "Rosebud."
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