The real history behind the obscure subplot in David Fincher film ‘Mank’
(Credit: Netflix)


The real history behind the obscure subplot in David Fincher film ‘Mank’

“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.”

When wunderkind Orson Welles is given full creative control and called upon to direct Citizen Kane, he appoints the raging alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz as the screenwriter. Amidst the Depression and the inevitability of the Second World War, the film focuses on the story of how the screenplay was written, providing an insight into Hollywood and contemporary political climate via the monochromatic, washed-up eyes of Mankiewicz. 

The subject of its creation has now been explored by David Fincher’s new Netflix film Mank in which Gary Oldman plays the titular role of Mankiewicz. While Fincher originally wanted to cast Kevin Spacey in 1997, his father passed away and the project was on hold. With an incredible cast, Mank boasts of brilliant visuals and performances. The original script had been too “anti-Welles” and was changed. Fincher has distanced himself from the controversy surrounding the credits of authorship and has vehemently put across how it was not his “interest to make a movie about a posthumous credit arbitration.” He proclaimed interest “in making a movie about a man who agreed not to take any credit. And who then changed his mind. That was interesting to me.” 

This Netflix film is one of the greatest ones released in 2020 and conceals various easter eggs. However, the biggest hidden gem should not go unnoticed as it is fascinating and informative of one of the most important political events of the time.

There is an obscure subplot in Mank which is actually very relevant and surprisingly prescient of the deception and misuse of power conducted by modern media. The 1934 gubernatorial election contested by Upton Sinclair and Frank Merriam occurs in the backdrop of the film and is testament to one of the most fascinating political events in California, one that saw the emergence of a vile partnership between the Hollywood moguls and the political realm. Here, we shall take a look at the events that led to Mank’s disillusionment as well as the inspirational figure behind Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst’s involvement with the defeat of the Democratic Party in California. 

Upton Sinclair, who was considered “America’s favourite Socialist”, was well-known for exposing the meatpacking industry in his 1906 novel Jungle. Although he appears as a minor character in David Fincher’s film, portrayed by Bill Nye, his presence and fate loom large over the film. Following the Great Depression, the United States of America was in economic, political and psychological decay. The predicament of the state of California was detailed in his 64-page pamphlet, I, Governor of California: And How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future. In the document, he outlined his marvellous plan to end poverty in California and described the future where Sinclair was already the governor and was slowly and successfully helping California ease out of the Depression. His platform ‘End Poverty in California’ (EPIC) seemed idyllic with its plans to turn “idle factories and farmlands into cooperatives for the unemployed, which would function on a “production for use program”. 

What could have a Democratic socialist, with nothing but California’s best interests on his mind, have done to incur the epic wrath of Hollywood and media magnates? As always, the common trope exists even in real life where socialism is eventually overpowered by the wealth and influence od big enterprises. Mayer and Thalberg hated Sinclair’s guts and fumed over his statement given to a reporter about the unemployed actors in Hollywood. According to KCET, the aspiring governor responded with: “Why should not the State of California rent one of the idle studios and let the unemployed actors make a few pictures of their own?” in what was a direct dig at the corrupt studio houses which prompted MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer, a despicable and corrupt man, along with producer Irving Thalberg, entrusted newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst with the duties of anti-campaigning and maligning.

Gary Oldman in Mank. (Credit: Netflix)

Sinclair disliked Hearst, and rightfully so, for the latter was a pioneer of fake news and yellow journalism. It seems as though Fox News has kept up with the tradition even now, and the events of 1934 which have once again been brought to light courtesy the Oldman-starring film, which is shockingly reflective of present times. Hearst disliked Sinclair for the socialist had taken a particular dig at the muckraker by talking about how the “richest newspaper publisher” was catering to the needs of his mistress, keeping her fulfilled “in a city of palaces and cathedrals, furnished with shiploads of junk imported from Europe”. This was quoted by Amanda Seyfried’s character in Mank, Marion Davies, when she took an “anachronistic dig” at Sinclair before Mank.

Sinclair was dragged and smeared with dirt by Hearst. He was labelled a communist and Hearst decided to move his studios to Florida if Sinclair won the election. In accordance with the Republican propaganda, they likened Sinclair to Hitler, published cartoons and editorials, describing the ill-intention borne by the socialist against the state of California. MGM did not hold back in employing its film machinery and technology. They hired actors from Central Casting and made fake newsreels. Under the pretext of being ‘California Election News’, there was an omnipresent narrator, the Inquiring Cameraman, whose voice is heard interviewing various people.

Playing on the fears of the Depression-ridden Californians, they used the classic Red Scare tactics by portraying Sinclair as the communist who would shelter the immigrants from the Dust Bowl. All the Sinclair supporters seemed to be homeless, illiterate, dangerous, miserable, foreigners with suspicious accents and clear malcontent, while the Merriam-voters were educated, upstanding and rational. It was quite a meta-narrative as the cameraman kept reiterating how these people were “not actors” and that he did not “rehearse them” for he was “impartial”. 

Mank, who was a “cog in the machine” was impressed by Sinclair’s revolutionary ideas and at the same time repulsed by the ongoing political slandering that involved fake news, yellow journalism and mindless mudslinging. It was further heightened when he ran into a homeless man, is portrayed as a Sinclair-supporter in an MGM propaganda film. Mank’s conscience and consciousness are reflected when he distinguishes between socialists and communists at the dinner party, saying that socialism refers to “sharing the wealth” while communism believes in “sharing poverty”, directly contradicting Mayer’s claims about Sinclair. Mank was not revolutionary; he never overstepped his boundaries yet made seething comments, directly in conflict with the disparaging remarks of the affluent moguls. 

Not only did they employ propagandist films but also photographs of trucks “loaded with tramps” to live in Sinclair’s California. They played on the emotional vulnerability and naivete of the common people, trying to push forward the viciousness of Sinclar’s campaign. Thalberg who insisted on politics and fair play as oxymoronic associations played a major role in turning the mass sentiment against Sinclair. They continued to portray his supporters as Russian sympathisers, crooks, delinquents and troublemakers as opposed to the civil supporters of Frank Merriam.

Billy Wilder, who had then been a writer at Fox, was reportedly left “aghast” by the situation. “This was not an example of what an American democracy was supposed to be about,” he said. The fake newsreels gain precedence in Fincher’s Mank, providing a close insight into Herman’s psyche. The film features a certain fictional Shelly Metcalf, whose anguish and guilt over directing one of Thalerg’s fake shorts prompts him to commit suicide, inducing in Mank inexplicable anger and rage. This, coupled with disillusionment at being involved with an industry as corrupt, ruthless and power-hungry made Mank go after Hearst fearlessly and boldly in Citizen Kane.

Mayer and his group of conspirators succeeded in their mission when Sinclair’s campaign stood defeated. However, it was a groundbreaking moment as Sinclair had received more votes than any Democratic candidate, standing at 900,000 votes, losing to the incumbent Republican Frank Merriam by a mere 11%. Upton Sinclair, who can be credited for paving the history for Democratic candidature in California, has a prominent and resonant role in David Fincher’s Mank, as Herman is slowly inspired by not only Hearst’s immorality but also the entire conservative and radical agendas he represents. Like Sinclair, Herman Mankiewicz is fighting in an industry laden with wealthy sharks, trying to find a footing for himself.