During the 1940s, the Office of War Information—America’s propaganda agency—set guidelines about how Hollywood could portray World War II. Its principles included what one department head, Nelson Poynter, called “properly directed hatred.” Movies were not to stoke fury toward Hitler and Mussolini specifically, nor toward Germans and Italians in general, but instead at the “militaristic system” that defined their countries.
This was a tricky, if not impossible, request. And Anthony Marra’s third novel, Mercury Pictures Presents, is a witty, carefully turned commentary on the futility and hypocrisy of Hollywood’s—and America’s—efforts to fulfill it. Opening in 1941, before America’s entry into the war, the story focuses on Maria, a deputy to the head of Mercury, a “second-tier studio producing movies that passed over the eye without lingering in the brain.”
Still, it’s an improvement over Mussolini’s Italy, where Maria’s father was arrested for defending anti-fascists. She’s fled to her great-aunt’s home in Los Angeles, where Hollywood films offer a path to assimilation for her extended immigrant family in Lincoln Heights. “Here you could study the conventions of your adoptive country from the anonymity of the audience,” Marra writes. “Here you learned whom to desire and dread.”
Maria is just one of many expats, refugees, and children of immigrants populating the Mercury lot. There’s also Anna, a German miniature architect who worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis before fleeing the Nazis. Maria’s boyfriend, Eddie, is a Chinese American actor passed over for East Asian roles. (Those “went to European Jews in eyelid tape, permitted to inhabit any ethnicity but their own.”) Vincent is a still photographer who was saved from drowning by Maria’s father before making his own escape from Italy.
For a time, Mercury is a haven for each from the bigotry of American life. It’s an imperfect retreat, to be sure, but one where they can put their talents to use. Artie, the studio’s chief, is the novel’s comic relief—toupeed, beleaguered by outsize financial and marital woes, quick with a zinger. But at heart he’s an advocate for fairness. In Washington to testify before the Senate Investigation into Motion Picture War Propaganda—a short-lived isolationist endeavor that set a precedent for McCarthy-era Hollywood attacks—he deftly undoes Congress’s meddling. His studio does relatively well with a staff of people perceived, in the world of the novel, as second-class citizens.
Pearl Harbor, which arrives literally at the center of Mercury Pictures Presents, complicates everything. Maria, Vincent, and Anna are compelled to register as enemy aliens. Their movements are restricted. Eddie is recruited to play a caricatured Japanese spy and walks the streets wearing a button saying “I Am a Chinese American,” lest his identity be mistaken. Mercury, which has found a financial savior in the U.S. military, with its need for training and propaganda films, has to support the fight against global fascism while accepting racist regulations on its lot.
Artie contemplates Hollywood’s complicity in all of this. “By encouraging audiences to accept the plausibility of conspiracies in peacetime,” Marra writes, “had Artie primed audiences to see enemies everywhere in war? Weren’t these stab-in-the-back fantasies as perverse as any found in German propaganda reels? And weren’t fears of fascism coming to America borne out by the concentration camps going up in the California desert?”
War zones and institutional corruption are Marra’s stock-in-trade. His 2013 debut, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, is set in a ravaged post-Soviet Chechnya; his 2015 novel-in-stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno, explores the long reach of Soviet censorship and historical manipulation. Here in 2022, he plainly finds it worth the reminder that America isn’t immune from this kind of institutional manipulation and abuse.
Of course, Marra understands that a novelist is a manipulator too. He grasps how the grandiosity of an epic narrative frees him to smuggle in more sober messages. Here he takes his cues from Maria, who learned how to send letters to her exiled father relatively unredacted: “Make excess blatant and the censor will overlook understatement.”
This is to say that Mercury Pictures Presents is largely a pleasure, its characterizations rich with detail: Maria’s aunts have “the suspect agelessness of filling-station pastry,” while Mercury’s propagandists hie to the desert where “a pale sidewinder autographs the sand.”
If Marra aspires to the manipulations of a Hollywood epic, though, his novel also bears some of an epic’s flaws. His observations sometimes feel forced; the “molecular verisimilitude,” for example, his characters seek in the desert—where they’re building a life-size model of a Berlin neighborhood, the better to bomb the real thing—leads to a lot of overstuffed and hard-to-buy plot twists. If this novel were a movie, it would be the director’s cut: immersive but too full of its creator’s whims.
But why make a tighter, more realistic novel? Marra’s grandiosity is a lure for a straightforward truth: that notions of liberty and freedom are easily undone for the sake of a more palatable story. In Lincoln Heights, Maria’s family heads to the police station to register as resident aliens while local scofflaws are booked. “The immigrants complying with the law and the native born who violated it shared the same line,” Maria observes. It’s an eternal lesson: when you prescribe “properly directed hatred,” there’s an excellent chance everybody will miss the target.•