Archive for March 6th, 2021

Mank – With Spoilers

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Meaning you can make the world swear King Kong is ten stories tall, and Mary Pickford a virgin, at 40. Yet you can’t convince starving voters that a turncoat Socialist is a menace to everything Californians hold dear?

You’re barely trying.

That’s Gary Oldman’s Herman Mankiewicz explaining the power of the mass media and imagination to MGM’s production manager Irving Thalberg in the Netflix film Mank.

This article contains spoilers, so consider yourself warned. Proceed at your own risk.

Mank shows famed Hollywood screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz struggling to finish the screenplay for Citizen Kane on Orson Welles’s compressed deadline, as he simultaneously recovers from a car accident, fights off and accommodates his drinking, and otherwise deals with the personal fallout from years of injudicious behavior off the set. In some ways, it’s a biopic of Mankiewicz, one of the great screenwriters from the golden age, but also cursed with a a terribly self-destructive personality.

The movie seeks to answer the question: Why would Mankiewicz write a movie that savaged his longtime personal acquaintances William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s mistress, the actress Marion Davies? It pins the answer down in the 1934 California governor’s race, and the studios’ and Hearst’s desire to see leftist upstart Upton Sinclair defeated at all costs.

Sinclair, much like a certain 2016/2020 presidential candidate, was a Socialist who became a Democrat in order to run in that primary. If you learned about him in school, it was probably for his journalistic muckraking career, most famous for his book The Jungle, about the terrible safety and sanitary conditions in the meat processing industry.

Sinclair won the primary, scaring not only Republicans but also a fair number of Democrats, and the studio heads went to work to defeat him. Louis B. Mayer, one of the heads of MGM, was also the chairman of the California Republicans, so he not only ran the political campaign, he helped organize the other studios. They coerced employees to donate and threatened to move their operations to Florida.

But things didn’t really click until the studios started doing their movie magic. In a series of scripted newsreels presented as actual man-on-the-street interviews, white, middle-class Californians were seen supporting the Republican, while minorities, immigrants, and migrants were seen supporting Sinclair and his End Poverty In California (EPIC) program. The results were predictably devastating to Sinclair.

In the event, Sinclair was defeated. But he had mobilized a new group of voters, done better than previous California Democrats running for governor, and seen a number of state legislators elected on his platform. The man who would be elected governor in 1938, Culbert Olson, was a Sinclair acolyte.

The scene above is invented. Mankiewicz may never have given Thalberg the idea to use the studios’ storytelling power to defeat Sinclair, but the campaign against Sinclar was very real.

And here’s where the movie puts its thumb on the scale. In Mank, the cameraman chosen to direct the spots kills himself out of shame and guilt at what he’s done, telling us exactly how the filmmakers view those shorts. They consider them a work of shameless propaganda, character assassination, and a betrayal of whatever ethical considerations attend to film.

(In real life, the director shot the films, took his paycheck, went home, and apparently never suffered any pangs of conscience. C’est la guerre. And in real life, Mankiewicz’s politics were somewhat right-of-center; he would have been unlikely to support Sinclair, although he might have bristled at being told to contribute to a political campaign by his bosses.)

The irony of a big tech studio like Netflix making a movie that criticizes 1930s Big Media for trying to gang-tackle an important election after what happened in 2020 is staggering.

For four years, the major newspapers, networks, and social media networks convinced themselves that something had gone terribly wrong in 2016’s presidential election, that they were significantly to blame for not having intervened to prevent it, and damned if they were going to let that happen again.

So the New York Times openly and clearly says that certain journalistic standards will have to be waived in the Age of Trump and The Washington Post signals that “Democracy Dies In Darkness.” Together, they spend 2 years pushing a false “Russian collusion” narrative, a narrative they knew was false because leading network reporters were involved in helping to create it. When the narrative inevitably fell apart, the press never questioned how such a story got such traction in the first place, and continues to interview its leading Democratic proponents such as Rep. Adam Schiff as though nothing untoward had happened.

Then, in 2020, Twitter and Facebook and the large legacy media outlets conspire – there really is no other word for it – conspire to suppress the Hunter Biden laptop story, which showed that ol’ Joe Biden knew exactly what sort of business his son was involved in and was planning to profit handsomely from it.

This stuff is election intervention on a relative scale that the Louis B. Mayer could only dream of.

Let me be clear – I liked Mank. I thought it was well-cast, well-acted, entertaining, informative, and presented a compelling narrative arc. The scene quoted at the beginning of this post is one of three one-on-one confrontations between Mankiewicz and Thalberg that provide the philosophical hinge of the movie.

But the central premise – that there’s something wrong with Big Media becoming a player in elections rather then a reporter of them – is something the filmmakers only believe when it’s someone else’s candidate getting gored.

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