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Netflix’s ‘Mank’ is a tale of old Hollywood – and of our corrupted modern age

Michael McCaffrey
Michael McCaffrey

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Michael McCaffrey is a writer and cultural critic who lives in Los Angeles. His work can be read at RT, Counterpunch and at his website mpmacting.com/blog. He is also the host of the popular cinema podcast Looking California and Feeling Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter @MPMActingCo

Netflix’s ‘Mank’ is a tale of old Hollywood – and of our corrupted modern age
Hollywood loves stories about Hollywood but Mank doesn’t glamorize Tinsel Town’s golden age but rather reveals the wound festering beneath the mythology…the same wound inflicting modern America.

On its surface, Mank, the new film by esteemed director David Fincher, chronicles the life and times of famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, most notably his struggle to write the Oscar winning screenplay for Citizen Kane.

Just below that gloriously photographed black and white surface though, a complex story of class struggle, financial control and political corruption lives, and it is that narrative that makes Mank a story for our time. 

Herman Mankiewicz a.k.a Mank, brilliantly portrayed by Oscar winner Gary Oldman, is a disheveled drunkard and degenerate gambler with an undeniable roguish charm. A brilliant wordsmith, Mank’s quick and erudite wit gets him in the good graces of the media mogul William Randolph Hearst, and by extension, the Hollywood heavyweights at MGM, Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg.

It is from this privileged perch at the luxurious dining tables of W.R. Hearst and in the offices of L.B. Mayer and Thalberg, that Mank is shown the diabolically deceptive practices and devious machinations of those in power. Mank’s growing discomfort and disgust at the charade of these powerful but hollow men eventually manifests in some alcohol-fueled, but extremely insightful diatribes.

But Mank, ever the slave to his own destructive impulses, is impotent to do anything about these men…until the opportunity to write a screenplay for the “boy genius” Orson Welles comes along.

With Citizen Kane, Mank uses his mighty pen to embarrass and eviscerate the all-powerful Hearst while also extending a middle finger to the repugnant Mayer.

Mank resonates in our current time because like Hearst and Mayer in the time of Citizen Kane, the new generation of decadent robber barons from Wall Street to Silicon Valley (Netflix, the film’s producer and distributor, prominent among them) wield their financial, cultural and political power to dominate and control society from their gilded castles while the rest of us scratch and claw just to stay alive.

In Mank there is a terrific scene where Louis B. Mayer tearfully speaks to a collection of MGM workers, whom he calls family, asking them to take a 50 percent pay cut in order to save the company. Mayer’s performance in that meeting is better than any acting he financed during his long reign at the movie studio, as he gets the workers to give up their money while he walks away giving up nothing.

That scene speaks to the nefarious political and media narrative of the last forty years since the Reagan (and Thatcher) revolution brought us the unmitigated horrors of financialization and trickle-down economics cloaked in the waving flag of empty patriotism. It also perfectly encapsulates America since the financial collapse of 2007-08, where a plethora of too big to fail corporations with big bosses receiving huge bonuses got bailed out while working people picking up the tab got financially beaten down and will never recover.

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It is the anger over that blatant economic unfairness and injustice that fueled movements as disparate as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders and even Trump’s rise to power. But as Mank shows us, the game is rigged, as the propaganda mills promise to strangle any working class movement in its crib.

As the last two presidential elections proved, oligarchs and their media minions will relentlessly wield identity politics like a cudgel to bludgeon the working class and cease any chance at any economic change. Divide and conquer has never been so easy as in our current age of manufactured victimhood.

The character Mank embodies the impotent confusion of so many American voters. He is a compulsive contrarian and as much as he loathes the malignant management class he is also wary of labor unions. Intuitively a man of the left, Mank is still clear-eyed enough to see that both sides of the duopoly are thoroughly compromised.

The devil’s bargain Mank makes with the power structure costs him his soul, and Citizen Kane is his attempt at personal redemption and revenge for the little guy. Like the rest of us, all Mank is able to do is take pleasure in his small and ultimately inconsequential victory.

Mank’s triumph with Citizen Kane is public but completely personal, as it garners him an Oscar but leaves the power structure that so infuriates him, unbowed, unbent and unbroken…even to this day.

For proof of this one need look no further than the recent election. Americans were forced once again to choose between two vacuous avatars for the same oligarchical ruling class. 

Even in the midst of a pandemic and government-forced shutdown resulting in an economic holocaust for working class people, both parties in Washington steadfastly refuse to consider universal healthcare, universal basic income, or even stimulus payments but are united in their insatiable desire to fellate the corporate class. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss, same as every boss we’ve ever had.

As for Mank, it is a slightly flawed, but thoroughly worthwhile, art house film that boasts some A-list talent, chief among them Fincher and Oldman. For those with the patience to stick with it, Mank does what very few movies attempt to do, never mind accomplish…it tells the uncomfortable, complicated and ugly truth about America and Americans. Bravo.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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