by Sasha Stone and Ryan Adams
Probably no other filmmaker living today, with the notable exception of David Lynch, is as good at turning the world inside out as David Fincher. To know his work is to understand one thing about him: he sees things other people don’t see, or pretend not to. Film analysts often interpret that disposition as Fincher’s need as a filmmaker to make people uncomfortable. That may be true to some extent, but it isn’t what I think drives his work. Rather, it’s best explained by Detective Somerset at the end of Seven: “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I believe the second part.”
The Game, Seven, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, Gone Girl, and now Mank can’t help but see the unseen, to lift the filter so many other filmmakers put on real life, to reveal true motives, frailties, and horrors. Even in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button there is a hard reality that must be faced, painful though it be: that we age and die and there isn’t anything we can do about it. We’re lucky to have brief moments of beauty and happiness in such a world but we’re born alone and we die alone. In Benjamin Button, we witness the heartbreak of a mother who dies in childbirth and the cruelty of a father who abandons his newborn son. But those tragedies are eclipsed by the kindness of a woman who has enough love in her heart to raise the infant as her own, to see his aberration as extraordinary. The truth about our world is that, but for the kindness of a few, most of the good things are buried beneath a surface layer of peculiar imperfection.
Fincher has been making great films since the 1990s. Some decades have been amenable to his style, and some are less so. That says nothing about him and everything about the generations that are introduced to his work. Probably the perfect match between generation and decade for Fincher’s temperament was the 1990s. There wasn’t a lot of hope but there was a lot of sharp cynicism. A lot of black comedy coming off the capitalist high of the 1980s and barreling towards the end of the millennium.
Films either escape the year they were born or they don’t but Fincher’s Se7en remains a masterpiece then and now. I can promise you that the more you watch it, the deeper it will resonate. That’s because Fincher, like Scorsese, packs a lot of information into every frame. There are always visual cues that move by so quickly you can’t catch them all the first time.
Se7en is so about the generation it was born into, but it resonates today because its themes remain true. They are not about the 90s but about humanity, our good and evil impulses, our self-righteousness that can turn into the worst horrors. Se7en is about learning how to manage that battle and understanding that this is not a world everyone is prepared for. Not really. Visually, Se7en is breathtaking in its use of religious symbolism, with the way crosses of shadows and light recur continually throughout the film, even in the window mullions. He uses Brad Pitt’s naïve vulnerability and Morgan Freeman’s world-weary goodness as visual effects. Finally, the big reveal towards the end is the movie’s best moment – when Kevin Spacey, covered in blood wails, DETECTIVE!” From that point on, with Spacey in the back of the police car running his mouth at the world, driving Brad Pitt’s character towards his final moments of psychological unravelling, Se7en takes its place among the greatest films ever made.
In The Game, a rich corporate asshole has become comfortably numb to real life and is sent down a rabbit hole of terror and near-death experiences so that his artifice can be shredded and stripped away, leaving him with nothing but a desire to live life in a way that matters. You have to feel it.
A similar narrative runs throughout Fight Club, which sits perfectly in the dispassionate 90s for his (and my) generation, Generation X. It’s where we’ve become so jaded that to feel anything at all, we have to experience the most extreme, the most primal of human emotions. But the key to both The Game and Fight Club is to see that they are both illusions that play before us as half real and half unreal. We don’t know, from moment to moment, which is real and which is fantasy.
The reason they built such an elaborate set for Panic Room is that the whole key to that movie is in diving straight through the walls and floors of a 4-story brownstone – penetrating something so symbolic of old-world New York, the upper class world that once ruled the Upper West Side (and maybe still does). Its imposing construction proves all but useless for protecting us from the perils outside – unless, as the intruders point out, what they want is “in that room.” What do you do if you’ve walled yourself in and the thing they want is where you are? What they want is buried inside the house, so Fincher’s camera passes though solid objects, burrows through the house, through keyholes, walls, and floors.
It’s perhaps Zodiac that best exemplifies Fincher’s signature style in terms of structure – the python’s coil. Zodiac wraps itself around you slowly, without you even realizing what’s happening, and not until the end does it tighten its grip absolutely. Zodiac is so much about peeling back the surface layer to uncover what’s hidden underneath – literally, as in basements, but also metaphorically in how the Zodiac obsession has burrowed its way into the minds of many, driving them to madness in their inability to solve the crime. Thus, round and round it goes until its final moments when it squeezes our last gasp.
This is again true of The Social Network, which tracks the rise of Zuckerberg and his pals as they built Facebook. It’s all fun and games until he screws over the only friend he had. The Social Network doesn’t build to a climax – it isn’t a matter of building tension but rather tightening the screws to squeeze the realization in the final moments when the mastermind is forever ensnared in a trap of his own devising. That is the reckoning for Zuckerberg, of who he is and what he has built. By the end, when he “friends” Erica Albright using his billion dollar platform to do something so very human we see the distance between humanity and social media. And that is the python’s coil.
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Gone Girl are two films about their titular characters who are living embodiments of the themes of Fincher’s work – the underneath and its overlay. Both films ultimately reveal the power of the female to enact justice (Lisbeth Salander) or revenge (Amy Dunne). In these films the worlds surrounding their leading women exist as constructs that are manufactured delusions of happy lives. Dragon Tattoo is, of course, about a deeply corrupt and abusive family hiding behind their wealth. In Gone Girl, Ben Affleck is the unwitting husband playing his part in Amazing Amy’s paper doll paradise. Gone Girl’s ending reveals a husband trapped in his wife’s grasp, his fate determined.
There was a long 6-year break between Gone Girl and Mank. Now, the model of cinema delivery has changed. It is his first feature film for Netflix, without the constraints or concerns of a box office scorecard, and its associate need to coddle a general audience with a film that goes down easily. Mank doesn’t. It is complex and compelling in its telling of a man whose life has not amounted to much except to entertain rich people at parties and write scripts for hire that sold. Mank is known about town as the smartest guy in the room, but has never lived up to his full potential. When he finally does, he writes Citizen Kane.
Mank made a joke of everything. But Fincher’s film delivers the jokes as mordant laments. Those who see too much hurt too much, and in Mank’s case the easiest, most available way out was to drink himself numb. So it didn’t really matter that he could write so well. He couldn’t really do anything else except to show up and dazzle people at parties by saying so many witty things that he often said too much. The organ grinder’s monkey.
In Mank, Hollywood is rolled out like the grime under the fingernails of the old stars who gather around the card game in Sunset Blvd. He shoots Louis B. Mayer, in all of his God cosplay, from below, to give him exaggerated height – only to reveal him as a puppet next to a genuine giant like Hearst. Mank is a movie about a dark industry that can conspire to keep great films from getting made if they are too threatening, and from getting seen if they’re too honest. But sometimes a movies is so good that there is nothing anyone can do about it. The art breaks free of its frame and survives regardless, and in the case of Citizen Kane the treacherous backstory only makes it more beloved.
Citizen Kane has never been just a movie. It was always a myth of a brave young knight kicking ass and taking names in the midst of a studio system that would eventually chew him up and spit him out. That system was wide-reaching, with countless tentacles stretched outward to powerful people who were invested in controlling the message. But the brave knight had emerged in his mid-twenties already blazing a trail of madness, convincing a nation that the country was under attack by Martians. He arrived in Hollywood with a motley crew of theater actors that he dragged along with him to build Citizen Kane, a film that is still so good that it jockeys neck and neck with Hitchcock’s Vertigo for top of the pile of the greatest film ever made.
The lore around Kane mostly revolves about Welles – a looming figure with so much talent it could not be contained nor controlled – who somehow made the magic happen with his debut movie. But then when they yanked his reins tighter, he would appear to sputter out, failing to repeat that initial promise. That’s the myth anyway. Maybe it’s true and maybe it isn’t, but what we know is that behind Citizen Kane was a team of Hollywood’s top talents and Welles had the good sense to listen to them. Kane isn’t Kane without the Mercury Players. It isn’t Kane without Gregg Toland or Bernard Herrmann. And it most certainly isn’t Kane without Herman J. Mankiewicz.
One of the other myths around Kane is the mystery who actually wrote it. Was it all Mank? Was it half and half? This may be a minor point in the grand scheme of things but it’s not nothing that this shadowy figure haunts one of the greatest films ever made. That has to be said each time Kane is referenced because one must understand the magnitude of the achievement. Kane has lasted this long because it’s a perfect movie about imperfect people – made by imperfect people who reached for perfection.
The mythic Welles has been celebrated, envied, and mimicked for decades. But Mank? An article or two here or there, an interview, a secret that’s been passed around, perhaps – but never rightly celebrated as someone who no doubt infused Kane with the depth that no 24-year-old could have managed on his own, even if he was the great Orson Welles. Because, of course, Kane is more about shame than it is about greatness, more about loss than it is about triumph.
Mank is about so many things at once – these themes are universal, as with most of Fincher’s films – which guarantees his movie will stand the test of time. It is both the origin story of one of the greatest films ever made and a cinematic tribute to it. It is a cynical look at how the big studios not only tried to bury bold artistic expression but also trafficked in propaganda to hand a crucial election during a pivotal point in American society to the moneyed candidate, with the help of one of the richest men in America.
The irony in Mank’s drunken monologue at Hearst’s ersatz castle is that it was Hearst himself who once believed in helping the common man. But then it was Hearst who helped MGM fake inflammatory ads to put a governor in power who would do nothing more important than give him a better tax break. There is a viciousness in what Kane sought to lay bare that Fincher, along with his late father Jack, have helped explain here. That viciousness is in the moments of crisis that reveal who people are.
As a trusted friend and court jester at San Simeon, there was a final straw that inspired Mank to expose Hearst. No doubt the politically progressive Orson Welles had no problem with that. What Mank and Welles did to Hearst was pay him back by exposing his hollowed out existence absent love, or any real friends. Anyone around him was paid to be there.
That is what great art can do. Art can tell a truth that no one else dares tell. The generation we’re living through now isn’t like the 90s. Or even the 2000s. Twenty years into the millennium too many American films now have to be on message. They should not dare twist or question that message or they will be immediately corrected. We don’t need the studios to censor films anymore because we have a hive mind that will demand it in advance so that whatever they get follows a certain set of guidelines that meet the moment.
The films that make it into this year’s Oscar race are films that meet the moment because they have to. They have to define who we are at a given point in time and this is who we are post Trump, post pandemic. Someday, though, more people will see how the subversive nature of Mank’s storytelling is all about disrupting the status quo by uncovering the observed and unvarnished truth about an American icon. And in so doing, illustrating exactly what it takes to tell great stories. It takes the ability to see, and it takes the guts to tell the truth about what you see.
Mank is not just the most beautifully made film of the year, but it is a great work of outsider art that demands much of any viewer who expects to fully appreciate its riches. Anyone who takes the time to dive into its many layers and intricacies, as with all Fincher’s films, will be richly rewarded.
If Mank was the first film by David Fincher I ever saw, I would be immediately hooked by recognizing someone whose mind moves so fast you almost can’t track it. That alone would compel me to chase whatever meaning and message that may remain just beyond my grasp.
Mank is easily the best film of the year.