This year, eight films are in the running for Best Picture, the most prestigious award at the Oscars. That’s a lot of movies to watch, analyze, and enjoy! So in the days before the ceremony on April 25, Vox staffers are looking at each of the nominees in turn. What makes this film appealing to Academy voters? What makes it emblematic of the year? And should it win?
Below, Vox film critic Alissa Wilkinson, deputy style and standards editor Tim Williams, and culture writer Aja Romano talk about Mank, David Fincher’s drama about Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the politics of 1930s Hollywood.
The ambiguity and ambivalence of watching Mank
Alissa Wilkinson: It’s funny: I think Mank may be the least “popular” of the Best Picture nominees — whatever that means in this weird year — but it’s also the most-nominated film by a long shot. I suppose that was inevitable; it is, after all, a movie about Hollywood, and that’s historically one of the Oscars’ favorite categories.
But it’s not a loving movie about Hollywood. I watched it multiple times in the course of writing about it, and I kept being startled by how much it criticizes a certain kind of cavalier attitude in the industry about what effect movies actually have on the people who watch them. It’s definitely David Fincher’s most political film, and it also questions the idea that any movie can be “just” a movie.
I think it’s a film about the “power of storytelling,” but not in the optimistic way most Oscar ceremonies use that term. To quote myself: It’s about how “there are big real-world implications to the way the movie business runs, from the lower-paid workers who struggle to make a living to the way the films they produce can distort the truth and benefit the powerful.”
Of course, it’s about lots of other things. As you watched Mank, what stuck out to you? What worked, and what didn’t?
Tim Williams: I was delighted at the ambition of much of this movie; I was sort of expecting a simple “... And that’s how we got Citizen Kane” story. In the flashbacks, you get that and a lot more. But the “Will he finish the script?” frame drops the hints of bigger ideas and doesn’t work on its own terms.
There is usually a certain pleasure in a backstage drama (that, as we’ve said, Hollywood can’t seem to get enough of). I only half-enjoyed the “lol alcoholics” antics of Herman Mankiewicz, the washed-up screenwriter whom Orson Welles hopes has one last story to tell.
The set-up feels intentionally dated, perhaps as a callback to the one-note movies Mank made for too much of his life. Still, this wizened, literally inert version of Mank just didn’t reveal much to me about the character. And it’s too hard to care about whether Citizen Kane will be made when there aren’t interesting obstacles in the way (besides a late-act appearance by Amanda Seyfried’s damsel who’s not really in distress).
So it’s a bit disappointing for me that the movie doesn’t satisfy as a surface-level, behind-the-scenes story, even if that may be the point. I suspect part of the problem was in the rewrites of the film; Fincher retains the disputed theory that the real-life Orson Welles didn’t do much writing for Citizen Kane. But he has said he ultimately moved away from that idea being the central conflict of Mank, which seems to have sapped it of some tension.
Luckily, I loved the other half of the movie, even when it was telling me through Mank’s asides and Fincher’s cold gaze that nothing matters.
It is perhaps a foregone conclusion that Mank, who in his mid-career is already too old for this shit, will turn on his capitalist benefactors. But Gary Oldman and deft dialogue make the particular turns of this arc a joy to watch and listen.
Mank’s turn comes too late to aid Upton Sinclair’s doomed campaign to bring a little socialism to California (including the movie industry). He does get in a few good monologues and the dubious honor of chewing the scenery of a GOP vote-counting party — scenery that somehow looks amazing under Fincher’s direction.
Every frame of this black-and-white film is styled as an Important Movie, like so many movies after Citizen Kane. It’s easy to get swept up in the theatrics, even when little is actually happening. Perhaps the suggestion is that important movies don’t amount to much. I don’t really think Fincher’s movie is telling us that if Mank had made propaganda for Sinclair, the world would be different, but what is the movie saying, if anything?
Aja Romano: It feels strange to be saying this about a film from David Fincher, who’s usually so searing and pointed in his themes and allegories, but I’m not really sure Mank knows what it’s saying.
Partly that’s because performative ambivalence is probably its major theme, if we have to hang our hat on one. It’s a consciously ambiguous story about a man whose strong moral compass wars with exhaustion, exasperation, and apathy — a man who then wrote (or co-wrote) a consciously ambiguous story about another man whose once-clear conscience grew murky with corruption and malaise.
But I think stating that theme so clearly is overdoing it. If Mank is supposed to be a treatise on the indifference of pre-war, Hays Code-era Hollywood to the social and geopolitical unease happening all around it, then Mankiewicz’s unerringly clear-sighted ability to read the room comes off less like a scathing commentary (from Fincher’s father, journalist and screenwriter Jack Fincher) and more like an attempt to find a knight in shining armor.
The self-loathing irony of Mank’s Don Quixote speech can’t quite mask the open admiration the film has for him, however muddled and mired in a coterie of flaws his principles might be. There’s just something so irresistibly Hollywoodized about a main character who drinks too much and alienates everyone but secretly funds Jewish refugees escaping from Europe. The film keeps Mank on a pedestal, like those famous upward-angle camera shots from Citizen Kane that allow Kane to tower over us.
I found Mank’s unmitigated adoration of its title character continually unsettling. I’m not sure whether that’s because it’s asking too much for him to be both the main character and the wry observational court jester of this narrative, or whether it’s because, in 2021, straightforwardly framing any straight cis white man as the uneasy moral conscience of his community rubs me the wrong way. And that brings me back to the film’s ambiguity and the ultimate ambivalence it left me with.
But maybe I’m assuming too much. Do either of you agree that the film is too in love with its own subject? Or am I failing to give it its due for the many ways in which it tries to undermine Mank’s clairvoyant view of the world, if not himself?
Alissa: I never quite had the feeling that the film adored Mank — or at least not any more than Citizen Kane adores Charles Foster Kane — but I don’t think your conclusion is unfounded, Aja. The text definitely can support it; he’s certainly presented as a kind of lovable rogue, and a guy who was perfectly happy to play along with the game as long as it played back. His conscience is questionable, at best; I saw him as more of the unhappy clown who speaks the truth, the miserable court jester, than a knight in shining armor.
But whatever the film does think of him, leaving Mank himself aside, it seems really clear to me that it’s in conversation with the politics of the time, from Upton Sinclair’s appearances to the union and labor politics at the studio level. Did any of that stick out to you? What do you make of it? Why make that movie now? And is it a little weird or telling that it’s on Netflix, which traditional Hollywood studios have tended to see as the harbinger of the death of cinema?
Do the politics and cultural context of Mank hold up?
Tim: In Mank, it never feels like the socialists have a chance at winning over Hollywood, let alone California. Labor unrest is quelled with a single sob speech by MGM tycoon Louis Mayer, who convinces an angry crew to give up their pay for the good of the movies.
Upton Sinclair is given a speech, too, but it serves only to confirm for Mank that he has cast his lot with the bad guys. Mank knows Sinclair isn’t going to win, despite the air of suspense as the votes are counted and Hearst clinks glasses as the GOP kingmaker. All Mank can do is lash out in defeat.
So is this all resonant today?
Today’s ultrarich are still buying up newspapers and media companies, producing a glut of cultural garbage, and obsessively policing their image, sure!
But now the gatekeepers have in some ways been overrun, with no idea how to regain control (well, without essentially taking over the entire internet, as China did).
Monoculture still has some footholds, most visible in all the Marvel-style movies and TV and the endlessly expanding universe of superhuman characters. Occasionally these movies subvert the idea of a superhero, but they don’t really push for collective action as an alternative. They generally do spectacularly well in China, because at the end of the day, socialist propaganda is not very exciting and action movies are.
If Mank is about the death of the auteur, then Netflix is both hero and villain, allowing creative freedom here and there but obscuring it all in the churn of content. But is creative freedom the thing Upton Sinclair fought for? His novels were famously didactic and unadorned treatises on the oppression of working people. I can’t imagine he cared about the Oscars, Hollywood’s chorus that pronounces the final judgment in Mank. (The Academy doles out a single screenplay award to Citizen Kane, bitterly shared by Welles and Mank.)
It’s all muddled to me; I’m not convinced this film has any answers. It’s about Mank’s quest to redeem himself and to put his name on the big important movie some powerful people really, really wish did not exist. Citizen Kane does see the light of day and chip away at the mystique of the rich, but doesn’t point to anything to replace it with.
So like Aja, I think this movie is a bit too enamored of its antihero to have a coherent political viewpoint. I don’t think that’s inherently a detriment, but it puts more weight on Mank’s thin frame. Mank gets in a good last jab at Orson Welles, who he seems to think is just another phony. It’s a very small, individualist triumph, immediately undercut by text before the credits that the writer died of alcoholism.
The movie ends with the sense that Mank got a raw deal in life; someone like Upton Sinclair might say the individual deal-making is the whole problem. So maybe the frame story isn’t so removed from politics after all. Still, the lack of fireworks between Mank and Welles makes this less than compelling drama. Needs more lies about history — I mean, “movie magic.” (Arguably, there is already a considerable amount.)
Whoops, I was supposed to talk about the parts of this movie other than Mank. Hard to do when it’s all about Mank!
Aja: This is what I mean about the movie keeping Mank on a pedestal — it doesn’t do that purely through subtext, but also through its framing of so many of the other characters as essentially bit players in the You Must Remember This episode of Mank’s life. All three of the women who surround Mank, especially his wife Sara, come across as glorified extras whose parts have been built entirely around challenging Mank’s narrative of himself. But they fail to function as effective counters, given that they also begrudgingly love him. (What Strong Female Character in a movie that fails the Bechdel test doesn’t begrudgingly love the Difficult Man they’re put into the movie to coddle?)
Sorry, am I making Mank sound superficial? A little — and that’s unfair to the film’s sharp shrewdness, its extravagantly witty script, its elaborate production design. It’s an excellent viewing experience. But beneath its polish, it treats both its political themes and most of its characters with what ultimately comes off as disinterest.
The film’s centerpiece moment, for me, comes at the unwitting hands of Seyfried’s Marion Davies (who incidentally is perfect in this role, not a note wrong). When Mank desperately tries to get her to use her influence to stop production on the film that he knows will sink Sinclair’s chances, she tells him, “I already made my exit.” He immediately storms off in defeat, clearly seeing her rationale as a microcosm of everything that is Wrong With Hollywood.
This is supposed to be the film’s showstopper irony, the moment when we see the tides of grand political fates turning around the whimsical vicissitudes of Hollywood celebrities. But it feels too easy — too self-serving as an example of Mank’s martyrdom in a land of hypocrites. Instead of painting Marion like a shallow political naif, Mank comes off like a showboat who’d rather dramatically race across a set to make an inexplicable demand of a busy starlet, and just as dramatically flounce away again once she’s turned him down, than take five minutes to explain to her what he’s asking and why. Just tell her why, Mank!
That kind of thing makes it hard for me to know how seriously the movie wants us to take its interest in labor unions et al. — because the labor movement, too, is ultimately just more expendable backdrop for Mank’s own grievances.
I think perhaps it’s fitting that a film like this wound up on Netflix. It’s demonstrably part of the classic genre of epic silver screen biopics, like Citizen Kane itself — meant to be seen on a screen 20 feet high and wow you with its masterful cinematography and commitment to spectacle. But it’s ultimately too complacent about its own pizazz, I think, to pull off the hat trick of dazzling you into loving it or agreeing with it (not that it knows what it wants you to agree with). It’s a film that instead rewards the repeated watching and analysis that a platform like Netflix engenders — and maybe that distancing effect has robbed it of some of its sheen. At least, in a different era, it would have stayed glossy through awards season. Now I’m not so sure.
What to watch, read, and listen to after Mank
Alissa: You’re both right, of course. There’s a lot to chew on here, but ultimately I wish I had gotten to see it on a big screen, while also being glad I got to rewind it and think about bits of it as pieces of filmmaking, not just one story. It’s complicated!
So I want to ask you both: If people liked Mank — or didn’t, but wanted to — are there other movies you would recommend? Or TV shows? Citizen Kane, obviously, but what else?
Aja: RKO 281, about the making of Citizen Kane, is the obvious choice here. Also try Cradle Will Rock, that lovely weird movie about labor unions, theater, and a radical off-Broadway musical that was too revolutionary to actually be performed. If “glossy biopics of eccentric Hollywood pioneers made by auteur directors” is the vibe you want, then The Aviator should probably be your first stop. And I’ve already mentioned it, but really the whole time I was watching Mank, I just kept thinking “This would have been better as a whole season of You Must Remember This,” the glorious podcast dedicated to vintage Hollywood deep-dives, so I’ll just toss that out there too. Its season on McCarthyism is essential listening, and makes for a great follow-up to Mank.
Tim: I think the Coen brothers’ Hail, Caesar! is an interesting companion to Mank — another muddle of themes and tone about the perverse incentives of the Old Hollywood machine. It’s a farce, not a drama, and arguably even messier than Mank, but it definitely has some of the same appeal.
If you’re looking for a period backstage drama with an intense focus on a single character, I highly recommend Opening Night, a John Cassavetes film about an actress who refuses to accept her societal role as the aging starlet.
I kind of want to troll people and also recommend This Is Not a Film, Jafar Panahi’s goofy, deadly serious, and zero-budget documentary about Iranian censorship. If you hated Mank … well, you might also not like this, for different reasons? But at least the stakes feel much more immediate.
Alissa: Oh, man, I love these suggestions. (This Is Not a Film is incredible!)
Since Tim already took Hail, Caesar! and Aja already mentioned You Must Remember This, I’ll throw in Robert Altman’s The Player, which is set much later than Mank, but in a Hollywood that isn’t all that different — and has the satirical edge and bite that Mank sometimes lacks. It’s full of references and Hollywood in-jokes, but it is, for my money, a bit more fun to watch.
And hey, there’s always Quentin Tarantino’s history-tweaking Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, which digs into another Hollywood background story but with a whole different sensibility.
Mank is streaming on Netflix. Find our discussions of the other 2021 Best Picture nominees here.