Despite the Academy’s recent fixation on diversity, films that deify the Golden Age of Hollywood and the industry’s status as America’s guiding light remain the most perennial subgenre of the Oscar movie from All About Eve and Singin’ in the Rain through The Artist and La La Land to last year’s Judy and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood…—one reason that Fincher’s dramatization of the battle over Citizen Kane led the Oscar nominations with nods in 10 categories. Mank seemingly typifies the quintessential Oscar Bait movie, a glamorous Tinseltown yarn in the hands of a white-male director whose contentious relationship with Hollywood and renegade auteur status on projects like Alien 3 and Fight Club eventually evolved into his acceptance as a lauded giant of the filmmaking establishment. Instead, under its biopic veneer, Mank is a meditation on Hollywood’s propagandistic tendencies and self-aggrandized aptitude for mythmaking, less interested in exploiting the industry’s excesses for melodrama than mourning its moral failure. Fincher takes great care to shift Welles to the periphery, instead focusing on Mank’s stark opposition to Louis B. Mayer’s use of Hollywood magic to manipulate the 1934 California gubernatorial election to favor lackluster Republican Frank Merriam over socialist novelist Upton Sinclair. One could easily view this subplot as an all-too-expected Hollywood swipe at conservatism, but Fincher makes a clear case for its resonance within our current political moment, positing that exploitative images of African-Americans and elites adopting deplorables’ affectations have long been tenets of politics as showbiz.
Fincher’s career began under much less auspicious circumstances than any other director of a 2021 Best Picture nominee. Born in Colorado to a nurse mother and a marginally successful writer father whose only produced screenplay is his posthumous credit for Mank, Fincher worked his way through below-the-line gigs in VFX and camera departments before receiving acclaim as a director of music videos, including George Michael’s “Freedom” and Madonna’s “Vogue.” Though apparently Hollywood’s “unhappiest auteur,” Fincher has carved out a role for himself as the American cinema’s great pragmatist. In the director’s care, Gary Oldman’s Mankiewicz is both alcoholic genius and self-saboteur—relegated to his role as Hollywood’s court jester because of his aversion to moral compromise whether when publicly humiliating Mayer or risking his career over a brutally honest portrait of publishing titan William Randolph Hearst in Kane. While Mank with his rebel-on-the-backlot approach may appear a proxy for Fincher, Amanda Seyfried’s layered portrayal of Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies seems much more a kindred spirit. Regardless of her proximity to power, she remains fiercely independent and candid about her role within a Hollywood that wants to make her a relic, a fate that Fincher has spent his career escaping, especially as the industry increasingly values guideline adherence over pure artistry