Mank: Nightmares in the Dream Factory
[The following essay contains SPOILERS; YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!]
Early in the first act of David Fincher’s Mank, protagonist Herman J. Mankiewicz ventures out to the MGM backlot for an appointment with Louis B. Mayer. Their meeting, however, gets off to a rocky start when the screenwriter catches the movie mogul in the middle of one of his many expletive-laden rants:
You would talk about your own mother that way? The woman who gave you life? You ungrateful bastard! I ought to cut your balls off!
As the volley of vulgarities echoes through the lavishly-decorated hallway, a sense of tonal dissonance washes over the viewer. The film is, after all, intentionally designed to evoke the stylized aesthetics (and, implicitly, the wholesome connotations) of an Old Hollywood classic, from the black-and-white cinematography to the grainy audio to the brassy orchestral score to the sweeping camera movements. It is therefore utterly jarring to hear a character spout coarse language and threaten an employee with castration; the sudden intrusion of Hays Code-unfriendly content into such a deliberately artificial setting shatters the celluloid trance, offering the audience a fleeting glimpse of the rotten core beneath the glitz and glamor of the studio system.
This contrast between “façade” and “reality” becomes a recurring theme—Mankiewicz’s acerbic wit disguises deep-seated insecurities and anxieties, self-proclaimed genius Orson Welles doesn’t pen a single word of Citizen Kane’s script (which isn’t entirely historically accurate, but works for the sake of dramatization), William Randolph Hearst fabricates political controversies in order to turn public opinion against Upton Sinclair—thus elevating the story above the level of mere pastiche. Mank isn’t just some pretentious exercise in shallow imitation; it is a sharp, insightful, and absolutely scathing deconstruction of the myth of Mayer’s beloved “dream factory.”