In a scene from David Fincher’s new film, “Mank,” now streaming on Netflix, MGM Studios head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) says about politics, “If you give people what they need to know in an emotional way, you can expect they’ll do the right thing.”
To which, “Citizen Kane” screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz replies, “I think what you mean is if you keep telling people something untrue loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it.”
Fincher’s film about old Hollywood and its mixture of innovation, spectacular talent, tons of cash and tinges of decay amid obscene opulence is interesting because it isn’t particularly revelatory, but in it’s tremendous attention to detail and artistry it shows how lessons we thought we learned keep getting forgotten no matter how often they come around.
Like the lines quoted above, spoken in the film as Nazi fuhrer Adolph Hitler began his rise to power in Germany during the 1930s while America was still fighting its way back from the Great Depression, Hollywood and the world of politics were already well aware of the power of persuasion inherent in the medium of motion pictures.
And, that is where the crux of Fincher’s film lies as it explores how Orson Welles (Tom Burke) developed his masterpiece, “Citizen Kane.” But, it is not Welles through which this story is told. Rightfully, it belongs to Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who was part of a small but influential group of film people at the time who were trying to bring literate and self-aware storytelling to the big screen. Welles was part of that and it is one of the reasons he was given such carte blanche at the age of 25 to write, produce and create whatever he wanted.
One of the innovations Welles brought to the screen was a way of fracturing the film narrative so the audience could absorb parts of the story as though remembering key elements as it moves forward. In “Mank,” Fincher, working from a script written by his own late father Jack Fincher, also breaks up the story by first introducing us to Mankiewicz as a middle-aged screenwriter who is still respected but clearly on the downhill slope due to alcoholism and, well, Hollywood’s notorious temptations. He is nursing a broken leg at the Kemper Campbell Ranch in Victorville, California when he gets the call from Welles hiring him to write his next big project.
It’s also a good time for him to dry out. So, the studio hires a stenographer named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who takes down his notes as he begins fleshing out the story of Charles Foster Kane, self-made millionaire and media mogul who despite his tremendous success dies lonely and unloved. The story, as is well known to film students, was modeled after newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, played in the film by Charles Dance. Hearst was enraged at the way he was portrayed in the film and did everything he could to destroy Welles and the film. Although not a huge success when released, it was in later decades deemed to be one of the greatest films ever made.
In “Mank,” we are given a slow and deliberate walk through 1930s Hollywood and the deal with the devil it made with the politics at the time. But, as we watch Oldman give one of his more interesting, though not his best, performances, we see how the science of filmmaking and its way of using people was well paid puppets helped create the world we live in today. It is not a historically accurate film by any means but it’s enough of a glance through the era for us to get it. As Mankiewicz says, “You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”
“Mank” is rated R for some language.
Taos News grade: A-.
Also streaming …
TCA Big Screen @ Home
Cost to view $12
This film premiered in 1981 as an official selection in Director’s Fortnight at Cannes. The new 4K digital restoration by the Cinemateca Portuguesa premiered at the 76th Venice Film Festival in 2019.
A sinister, absorbing portrait of a mutually destructive love affair, Manoel de Oliveira's “Francisca” is based on a novel by Agustina Bessa-Luís. The book's re-telling of a troubled passage in real-life author Camilo Castelo Branco’s life — his friend José Augusto embarked on a perverse game of marital cat and mouse with Francisca, the woman the novelist loved—led Oliveira to new levels of stylistic and formal imagination.
With its elaborate title cards, its abundance of shots in which the action is oriented directly toward the camera, its gloomy interiors, and its show-stopping gala set-pieces, “Francisca” is an exacting, sumptuous and utterly inimitable cinematic experience, and one of Oliveira's crowning achievements.
This film is available to view now through Dec. 18 by following the links at tcataos.org. Log in for a free Film Fans discussion via Zoom on Sunday (Dec. 6) from 4-5 p.m.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The Mitchell Storyteller 7 Theatres in Taos and the Taos Community Auditorium remain closed for the time being in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic. Until they reopen, we will focus on movies available online.