In a new, recurring feature called Partisan Cinema, A. J. Black looks at movies from a political slant, gleaning insight from them about how they relate to society then, and indeed now…
One senses the frustrations of writer Upton Sinclair, erstwhile Democratic nominee for the Governorship of California in 1934 and open socialist, might not have featured so prominently had Mank been made, as planned, in the late 1990s.
The story of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (portrayed here in wonderfully shambolic form by Gary Oldman) as he furiously raced to complete the screenplay of Orson Welles’ future masterpiece Citizen Kane, was penned originally in the ‘90s by the late Jack Fincher, who passed away in 2003. His son, renowned auteur David Fincher, planned to make the film after 1997’s The Game with Kevin Spacey (remember him?) in the titular role, before Fincher’s own seminal masterpiece Fight Club beckoned, but the stars refused to align. Fincher, after a cinematic break of six years following his adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, has finally—thanks to Netflix—provided viewers with his father’s legacy at the tail end of a year where audiences have been starved of prominent cinema.
Yet Mank, arriving at the end of 2020, has not just fallen in what we might dare to hope are the impending final months of the Covid-19 pandemic, but also twelve months of sweeping social and cultural unrest. This might well be the biopic of a long-dead man in a now near-mythic cinematic age, revolving around the creation of what many have considered for decades to be the greatest film ever made, but Mank’s politics feel heightened for modern audiences. Fincher, borrowing Citizen Kane’s then-revolutionary non-linear structure, flashes back in episodic fashion from 1940 to deeper back into the 1930s and sees his lead character unconsciously crafting the elements of his Oscar-winning script from powerful, influential figures, and political movements, of the previous decade.
Mank positions the brilliance of its protagonist, and the work of genius he creates, within the tussle of polarised political ideologies in a manner that, intentionally or not, reflects the America of 2020.
Let us, for a moment, sort fact from fiction when it comes to Mank.
The key backdrop to Mank’s flashback’s, which are designed to illuminate crucially Herman’s relationships with powerful newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (played here by excellent likeness Charles Dance) and his mistress, former Ziegfeld Follie and actress Marion Davies (a sassy Amanda Seyfried, in one of her best performances to date), and how they served as central touchstones to the core players in Citizen Kane, is set against a backdrop of growing social unrest in California as liberal, socialist values clashed with well-entrenched conservative Republicanism fuelled by powerful, and wealthy, entities.
Mank wants us to believe, however, that our lead Herman was far more of an early social justice warrior than history bears out.
Mank suggests that Herman was the only hold out at the studio that employed him, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, in resisting the efforts of Sinclair to be elected on a socialist ticket, but there is no evidence to suggest Mank himself wasn’t actually a light-conservative himself. It is in the interest of Fincher’s film, premiering at such politically sensitive times, to portray the lead character as sympathetic to the unionisation and equality that cunning MGM boss Louis B. Mayer (a snivelling Arliss Howard), wishes to beat down. In a moment that did take place, Mayer asks his MGM staff—from contracted stars such as Lionel Barrymore down to the working men—to take a temporary 50% pay cut to help the studio survive choppy economic waters. “Will you take a cut, Mr Mayer?” someone shouts. Mayer, of course, changes the subject.
While Mank’s present-day story takes place in 1940, with the writer convalescing and writing fuelled up on whiskey, a significant chunk of the narrative exists in the shadow of the Great Depression following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, the most severe global economic shock until the sub-prime mortgage crisis of 2007-2008 (and this year the Covid-19 pandemic). Sinclair—who came to prominence some years earlier as writer of The Jungle, a novelistic tract which sparked health and safety reforms in the meatpacking industry—frames his politics in the wake of rampant inequality following the crash. Herman at one point faces a former studio day player who has been reduced to begging outside the studio lot, a victim of the economic strife men like Mayer, his stooge Irving Thalberg, and the mighty Hearst are shielded from thanks to their influence.
You can see in how virulently Sinclair’s campaign is targeted by Hearst’s newspapers and even Mayer’s studio empire (through fake newsreels which paint Sinclair’s campaign as more Communist than socialist or anti-fascist), reflections of 2020 in how targeted misinformation is designed to compromise the very notion of socialism, and conflate it with the terror of Communism. Mank spells the difference out nicely during a fascinating, drawn out debate at one of Hearst’s large-scale parties. “In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In Communism, everyone shares the poverty”. It’s a crude distinction but it works in the separation, one which in 2020 remains as stark as it would have done in the days FDR considered Sinclair’s campaign worth keeping tabs on.
Robert Longley further defines the key difference:
Under communism, the people are compensated or provided for based on their needs. In a pure communist society, the government provides most or all food, clothing, housing and other necessities based on what it considers to be the needs of the people. Socialism is based on the premise the people will be compensated based on their level of individual contribution to the economy. Effort and innovation are thus rewarded under socialism.
This functions as a backdrop to Mank, but an important one, as Herman develops the central character in the film to be, Charles Foster Kane, as a thinly-veiled version of Hearst, and a deliberate reflection of the man’s politics.
Hearst himself attempted to run for political office, to no avail, yet had he succeeded we might have faced a similar series of events as Philip Roth depicted in his excellent counterfactual history novel The Plot Against America; an orthodox conservative in the White House who no doubt would have balked at the Keynesian economics which formed the heart of the post-war contract. It’s interesting how Mank entirely avoids the reality of WW2, beyond references to the emerging threat of Hitler and Mussolini. Hearst casts of Hitler as no significant threat in 1933, suggesting the German people have more sense than to embrace him. Herman points out that he’s just opened his first concentration camp and has started burning books. “What’s next? Movies?”.
It’s no coincidence Kane, in the film, confidently and erroneously predicts war in Europe will never happen.
Mank as a film, however, exists in a space where WW2, and the battle between democracy and fascism, are at a remove from America’s own conflict of the established Republican and Democratic orders that had Pearl Harbor never happened, could likely have exacerbated the fractures in American society that have emerged strongly since the economic nosedive of the 1970s and the advancement of Hayek & Friedman’s neoliberal principles. Maybe Hearst would have become President, as Charles Foster Kane dreams of—and equally fails to achieve. Maybe America would have grown as inward and isolationist as they were heading during Donald Trump’s presidency and America would have allowed the spread of fascism across Europe. Mank, and Citizen Kane, hint at the alternate, perhaps darker, America that might have emerged from this pre-war paradigm.
It is hard to look at Hearst, indeed, and on some level see not just Rupert Murdoch, but also Donald Trump. You can certainly see the latter in Charles Foster Kane, the ultra-rich industrialist who apparently stands for nothing except his own insecure narcissism, and a deep-seated need to be loved in a manner robbed from him during childhood. The entire core mystery and revelation of Citizen Kane, the meaning of ‘Rosebud’, hangs on this central emotional void. Hearst was reviled by many but he wasn’t entirely destroyed by power as Kane was, eaten up inside by his own rotten heart as he sought to influence and control the news through his own influence, but there are similarities. Trump certainly has worked to shape his own narrative, fuelled by his own personality and psychological traumas.
Trump, interestingly, was asked some years ago about his similarities to Citizen Kane’s troubled protagonist, and gave more of an erudite response that one would imagine we might get today:
You learn in ‘Kane’ maybe wealth isn’t everything, because he had the wealth but he didn’t have the happiness. In real life I believe that wealth does in fact isolate you from other people. It’s a protective mechanism — you have your guard up much more so [than] if you didn’t have wealth.
It is often easy, and lazy, to frame movies as reflecting the age they are made in, and Mank does not completely slot into a 2020 comparison. First and foremost, it places Herman in the centrifuge of pre-war, economically-difficult, polarised American political fragmentation encouraged by conglomerates and powerful actors.
Yet can we ignore what Mank is trying to say? Though Fincher’s film is quite sentimental toward old Hollywood, shading out the hardest edges of Hearst and allowing him sympathy through the charming proxy of Marion, in the end it suggests Sinclair is the underdog whose socialist platforms are beaten down by wealth and influence at the expense of ordinary Americans, intentionally targeted through outright propaganda and lies in order to fuel an established, highly unequal system that favours men like Hearst and Mayer – men who have crafted empires and built castles and fiefdoms like honorary American royalty, as Mank has Kane do in the film with Xanadu, his ill-fated, stately pleasure dome decree.
Attending the election night victory of Sinclair’s opponent, Frank Merriam, Mank hears Mayer and Thalberg suggesting that the right victory can be achieved by appealing to people’s emotions, and he cuts through their bullshit. “I think you mean that if you keep telling people something untrue loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it”. What is this but a repudiation of Mayer & Thalberg’s primitive intimation of the kind of targeted political surplus of social media? What is Hearst influencing MGM’s newsreels to spread misinformation but early examples of ‘fake news’ designed to spread fear and anxiety about ideals which challenge the orthodoxy of free trade capitalism, and the myth of the so-called American Dream?
Mank feels acutely aware of realities that are pervading our world today, and trades off them through Fincher’s halcyon paean to perhaps cinema’s greatest picture.
Did Herman Mankewicz, in some way, understand this too?
After all, Charles Foster Kane comes from nothing, the child of parents who inherited wealth at the end of the Gold Rush, in a supposed tin-pot mine, left in trust until he came of age, at which point he began his spiral into the manipulation of mass media that destroyed his soul. “You provide the prose poems. I’ll provide the war” he says in jest early on, referencing potential conflict in Cuba, but Mank understood the conflation between power, control and politics in Citizen Kane, imbuing the film with a mythic resonance about not just the mystique of one, perhaps unknowable titan of industry, but America itself.
Self-knowingly, Mank says early on: “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”. Mank, the man and the film, leaves not just the impression of a man, but a country, and one that does not look much different almost a century on.