Gone Girl (2014)
Twisty plot chicanery, an unreliable narrator, a glossy visual aesthetic, and a scene-stealing gummy-bear-throwing lawyer all contribute to making this Fincher’s best film since Zodiac. More than that, by sparking off debates on social media (ironically one of the targets of its satire), the film showed there to be some life in cinema’s social significance yet. The main issue contested was the representation of Amy, sexist to some, feminist to others. I personally sided towards the latter after my viewing, and reading some of the discussions didn’t change my mind. Yes, she’s a modern update on the femme fatale, but any reading of film history will tell you the femme fatale archetype was in her own ways the most exciting female stock character of the classical Hollywood era. Yes, she’s an avenging beast materialised out of the darkest nightmare of the male psyche, and yes she’s a cipher, but I think that’s the point. Gillian Flynn has written Amy as a woman who is defined by others, whose story has been and is being written by those around her, in the case of her parents quite literally so, but no less in the case of her husband and ex-boyfriend seeing in her the person they want to see. In turn, this created an expectation of her responsibility to become that idealised version of herself. Now she’s had enough and wants to fight for control of her own narrative, and she goes about it by creating a new story of her own (hence the unreliable narration too) in an admittedly extreme way… (Jean-Baptiste de Vaulx, January 2015)
Over a century since its creation, and many transformations since, Hollywood continues to make films about itself, even today in its Netflix-Disney era of ownership by multinationals who have strictly nothing to do with the larger-than-life studio heads who once founded the place.
In Mank, David Fincher resuscitates the heyday of the Thirties and Fourties, aka Hollywood’s golden age — and, more specifically within that, the life and times of Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). The film begins with Mank, as he is affectionately and sometimes not so affectionately known, shacked up in a booze-free hideaway in the Mojave desert, sent there by 24-year-old new boy-wonder in town Orson Welles (Tom Burke), so that he can write the screenplay for Citizen Kane. In between writing, he reminisces on his years in the business, prompting Kane-like flashbacks which we presume inspire his screenwriting process as the narrative unfolds. These flashbacks have Mank locking horns with right-wing studio mogul Louis B. Mayer and his very own boy-wonder Irving Thalberg at MGM, winning the favour of reactionary media mogul William Randolph Hearst and hating himself for it, and entering into a kind of platonic romance tinged with admiration and pity for Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Oldman’s Mank is not quite the mystery that Kane was and gradually the flashbacks reveal him to be a wasted genius, tortured under his mask of ironic wit and wise-cracks (and copious drinking), a jester in the court of Hollywood, which he wishes he could escape but remains indentured to. Or occasionally worse, a jester in the palatial luxury of Hearst’s circle — Hearst being a man Mank reviles behind his back and will end up betraying by figuratively attacking him with the only weapon he has, his typewriter.
Despite the mask of cynical apathy, many scenes betray the fact Mank does care about several people even if he is destructive to himself and those closest to him (his long-suffering wife goes by the permanent moniker ‘Poor Sara’). But for others he does care, for his colleagues, for Marion Davies, for abstract principles (e.g. the principle of fair play). It is by principle that he sides with David over Goliath every time, all whilst under Goliath’s payroll, a paradox at the root of his internal conflict and self-loathing. Cue the film’s California gubernatorial election sub-plot, largely there to resonate with our current ‘fake news’ era and not particularly based on authentic autobiographic details from Mank’s life. Or the constant tension between the Hollywood hack writer paid a salary for churning out entertainment he internally disdains, versus the ‘serious’ writer Mank deep down longs to be, the socially-minded artist with something to say.
All very watchable, but such nostalgic Hollywood mythology of the principled studio employee has been played out in earlier (and better) films like the Coen brothers’ Barton Fink. As usual, the main appeal of such pastiche biopics remains the wink-wink recognition of many a legendary Hollywood figure which cinephiles will have fun spotting, although even that falls sadly flat in its most crucial cameo. The scenes with Orson Welles, a man far too grandiose and unique in personality for any contemporary actor to really do him justice, range from disappointing to embarrassing. Welles’ petulant outburst at the end seems poorly acted, poorly edited and just a tad ridiculous, even if it is only there to set up the punchline of Mank’s final quip. Ultimately their relationship in the film is a rather futile and uninteresting side-plot about their personal and artistic rivalry — the biopic Pauline Kael might have wanted to see perhaps, but there were far more interesting things to flesh out, rather than tacking on acrimony and feud for the sake of an ending that misses its mark.
And, finally, doesn’t it seem ironic that in a film that purports to champion the writer as creative force, that it is Fincher’s direction and glossy technique, the black-and-white cinematography with its criss-cross shafts of light and digital-retro look, the set design revelling in Hollywood art deco, the visual nods to Kane (e.g. the arrival of Marion Davies in her car seen through the window of Mank’s writing cabin), and of course the acting (Oldman gives his most human and three-dimensional performance in quite a while, with no prosthetic makeup in sight, while Seyfried is also tremendous as the film’s emotional core), which actually elevate the structure of this film’s not-so-great script? (Jean-Baptiste de Vaulx, May 2022)