Is David Fincher’s “Mank” a Netflix Psy-Op? An Investigation.

There’s an intentionality to be ascribed to Netflix’s choice to give a green light to a script that the director himself confesses all the other studios passed on

December 3, 2020 10:20 am
David Fincher Mank
Amanda Seyfried and Gary Oldman in “Mank”

When you’ve spent enough time watching the original movies produced and distributed by Netflix — and if anyone on this Earth can make that claim, it must surely be me — you start to notice little patterns. There’s a strange preponderance of movies about competitive dance teams, or low-rent serial killers, or beta males finding their inner alpha. Eventually, the broad contours of their development policies start to present themselves to an attentive viewer. Sometimes, it’s easy enough to connect the dots; the platform reported that the cruise ship-set Kristen Bell-Kelsey Grammer comedy Like Father did monster numbers for them, and then about one year later, we got another ocean liner comedy in Yucatán. In other cases, there’s an on-the-books paper trail, like a multi-picture deal with Adam Sandler or a coproduction contract to bring feminist entertainment to India. Most of the time, however, we’re left to our own algorithmic surmise about the inner workings of the Big Red N.

The release of David Fincher’s new feature, Mank, set off an alarm bell on this front, drawing fresh attention to a micro-trend in my ongoing probe of what content Netflix considers worth having. An artist as distinguished and famously controlling as Fincher wouldn’t seem the type to let himself be fed into a system of taste-automation, and it wouldn’t be fair to say he has. His long-in-the-works chronicle of the drama behind the scenes of Citizen Kane scans as perhaps his most personal statement yet, adapted as it is from a script his father Jack wrote back in the 1990s. All the same, there’s an intentionality to be ascribed to Netflix’s choice to give a green light to a script that Fincher himself confesses all the other studios passed on. The executives brought him into their world, and now he has no choice but to live in it with the rest of us. And on Planet Netflix, they’re free to remold the film industry’s reality in their own image.

Mank’s raison d’etre concerns a setting-straight of the historical record, as it shines an overdue spotlight on the unsung Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, crumbling like a marble statue), the lesser-known writer of Citizen Kane. He’s largely faded into the background of Tinseltown posterity while director Orson Welles has hoarded credit for the consensus pick for greatest movie ever made, though that’s more of a tertiary conflict. The man called Mank spends most of the run time raging against the machinery of Hollywood itself, while the powers that be attempt to put the kibosh on Kane for speaking out so stridently against mega-tycoon William Randolph Hearst and the capitalist institutions he represents. Mankiewicz has nothing but contempt for gazillionaires as well as the studio bosses like Louis B. Mayer committed to keeping them happy. His refusal to play ball, along with his dedicated alcoholism, fuels the self-destructive streak that brings about his downfall. He died at age 55 in relative obscurity, his legacy left for excavation, first by critics like Pauline Kael and now by Netflix.

This acrid critique of Golden Age showbiz politics as carefully inoffensive to the point of overcautious conservatism is right at home in the Netflix library, where the suits have been pushing that line for a while now. I wrote earlier this year about the service’s glossy miniseries Hollywood, a revisionist fantasy in which a crew of plucky multi-ethnic creatives upend the era’s status quo simply by refusing to accept the racist standards of the postwar ‘40s. While absurd on a few different fronts, that premise did contain the telling, clearly stated idea that the architecture of power and influence gets in the way of boundary-pushing art from true visionaries. The facile writing on Hollywood gives us a better picture of what Netflix thought they were getting with the more complex Mank, though that’s still not the closest cousin of Fincher’s latest.

The real key to unlocking this piece of Netflix’s corporate doctrine is a motion picture called Curtiz, premiered on the festival circuit in 2018 before they gave it a streaming release this past March. Like Mank, it focuses on a willful creative type traversing an uncooperative studio system as he labors to complete his master-piece, in this instance the Hungarian emigré director Michael Curtiz during the production of Casablanca. As in Mank, the protagonist faces friction and meddling from pencil-necks with a tame notion of what art should be, with the higher-ups at Warner Bros. desperate to iron out any human complications of character so that the government rep prowling around set will be placated by a sufficiently patriotic message. The film strikes the Mankian balance of nostalgia for the texture and style of classical Hollywood with a cynical distrust for the dirty goings-on behind the scenes. In the most striking similarity of all, Curtiz has also been shot entirely in black and white as an affectionate homage to a bygone period of cinema aesthetics.

A clumsier film by several measures, Curtiz states in bold print what Mank leaves us to realize for ourselves. In an early scene, the “state ambassador” responsible for enforcing a blunt pro-U.S.A. ethic at Warner Bros. tells Casablanca’s producer, “This film needs to be the collective embodiment of our nation’s character, much more than the vision of just one man!” He’s making a hilariously on-the-nose refutation of the auteur theory, the lens of analysis through which a film can be read as an expression of one figure’s artistic sensibility. In part, that soundbite also echoes the dominant ideology of the studios at the time, which regarded the temperamental talents in their employ as particularly stubborn, high-value cattle to be herded from one picture to the next. They are the enemies of art, even as they facilitate it.

That’s the precise image that Netflix has angled to avoid, both in their official PR and their programming of work like Curtiz, Hollywood, and Mank. The fledgling studio has aggressively branded itself as a progressive-minded ‘disruptor,’ to use a term favored by head honcho Reed Hastings, where bold directors can go to get their dream movies made without interference from the top. The permissive benevolence of Netflix was a cornerstone of the Oscar campaigns for Roma and The Irish-man, two expensive and highly uncommercial projects coming from somewhere personal for esteemed big-name directors. Giving a whole bunch of money to some-one who knows how to use it and then letting them do their thing has been a winning strategy for the company on quite a few occasions, most recently on Spike Lee’s handsomely budgeted (estimated between $35 and $45 million) psychedelic war epic Da 5 Bloods. This people-first philosophy also extends to their proudly trumpeted political leanings, which inform a slate that prioritizes a diversity of titles from women, the LGBTQ community and other marginalized groups.

But closer inspection puts some snags in those optics, and lends the sour air of unwitting propaganda to Mank and its brethren. It appears that while directors with a certain measure of celebrity enjoy carte blanche privileges in their dealings with Netflix, those at the gun-for-hire level are subject to micromanagement like anyone else. Vague, suspiciously scant reports of script notes given by the all-knowing algorithm come from the directors of lower-profile productions, who often find their end product dumped onto the platform with minimal fanfare, vanishing into the vast glutof content. I often think back on the filmmaker who reached out to me directly with a request that I add an entry on my grand netflick-ranking list to Rotten Tomatoes as a review, because Netflix’s total disinterest in advertising had so minimized his film’s existence. The question of their wokeness bona fides can start a whole other conversation; suffice it to say there’s room for doubt when the brand playing up their documentary about trans representation onscreen also removed its own name and logo from its virulently offensive and fleetingly transphobic Romanian import Oh, Ramona! without notice or explanation.

“All I know is no film ever changed the course of history, but you can try,” a dinner guest says to Curtiz. Though Mank has the good sense to expose the futility of such an enterprise, both films play into that exact delusion of grandeur embraced by Netflix. However well-founded, these broadsides frame the big studios of yore as dinosaurs soon to be phased out by a leaner, more ethical alternative that will turn moviemaking into a fairer and freer business. At the Warner Bros. of Curtiz, a woman gets fired for speaking out in a meeting, and in Mank’s MGM, sinister forces conspire to quash the gubernatorial candidacy of the commerce-unfriendly Upton Sinclair. Running a studio is a dirty job, and as the output from Netflix would have it, they’re cleaning it up. That would just be easier to believe if, say, they weren’t being denounced by a dozen great cineastes for circumventing taxes in Europe. Like they did in Zambia. And in Indonesia. And in Poland. And in India.

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