Synopsis: Screenwriter Herman ‘Mank’ Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a Hollywood outcast in the 1940s, thanks to his alcoholism and unfortunate habit of speaking truth to power. When an unfortunate car crash leaves him bedridden, Mank accepts a commission from ‘boy wonder’ multi-hyphenate Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write a screenplay for his debut film. That film? Citizen Kane.
1. Mank is a work of fiction. Normally that statement does not need to be said, but in this case, it’s vital. In 1971, film critic Pauline Kael controversially claimed in The New Yorker that the screenplay for Citizen Kane (regularly lauded as the greatest film ever and one of my all-time favourites) was entirely written by Mankiewicz, and that Welles had stolen the writer’s credit by attaching his name to a screenplay that he had next to nothing to do with. This claim has now been debunked by film scholars, who cite the vast difference between Mankiewicz’s first drafts and the eventual shooting scripts, noting that Welles was primarily responsible for cutting down a 250 page, dialogue-heavy monstrosity to the lean, elegant final shooting script. Mank (the movie) is inspired by Kael’s claim, positing Mank (the character) as the primary genius behind Citizen Kane. Nonetheless, as a fictional movie, it is the prerogative of the filmmakers – chiefly director David Fincher and his screenwriter father Jack Fincher – to tell the story they want to tell, truth be damned. For these ‘inspired by true event’ stories, I tend to go with Werner Herzog’s theory that a film’s main task should be to tell the ‘ecstatic truth’, the deeper meaning, instead of being bogged down by fidelity to the literal. David Fincher has form for this, with The Social Network eschewing the facts of Facebook’s founding for a far more meaningful story about isolation, resentment, and inequality in the modern age. So with all that said – what is Mank’s ecstatic truth? What is it trying to say?
To be honest, I really don’t know. And I suspect Mank doesn’t either.
2. Part of the issue is how overstuffed this film is. One cannot accuse Mank of lacking ambition. It is a story about (deep breath) the writing of Citizen Kane, Herman Mankiewicz’s relationships with William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies (rumoured to be the inspirations for Charles Foster Kane and Susan Alexander Kane), the 1934 California gubernatorial election (yes, really), the creation of ‘fake news’, how Mankiewicz got fired from MGM, and the battle for credit over the Kane screenplay. That’s a lot, to put it mildly, and it is to the credit of both Finchers (along with David’s usual editor Kirk Baxter) that the film chugs along nicely at a merry pace, though there are moments of bloat, especially in the early Hollywood scenes, which serve very little purpose and could have been easily cut. Aside from the sheer quantity of story material, there is also the way that the film chooses to deliver it. Mank grandly attempts to tell its story like Kane, using a non-linear screenplay that jumps back and forth from present to past, relying upon flashback recollections to dole out info about its protagonist. Aside from that, David Fincher, after a full decade of paring back his once-flamboyant directorial style to a scalpel-sharp precision, goes full tilt in the other direction and films Mank like a 40s movie, complete with fake cigarette burns (1), dreamlike black-and-white cinematography, a period appropriate score from usual collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, and even a vintage booming sound design that mimics the early talkies. So Mank is ambitious and stylish, there is no doubt. But in trying to do so much, it ends up accomplishing little. All the various plot threads do not cohere in any meaningful way, and they move in parallel rather than being entwined.
3. In particular, the ‘present-day’ writing portion of the film is so disconnected with the rest of the story that it feels superfluous, existing only to mimic Kane in the most obvious fashion. The ‘present-day’ portions of Kane are full of narrative heft and propulsion, driven by the central mystery of what ‘Rosebud’ is and how Kane transformed from tycoon to recluse. In contrast, there is little to ‘uncover’ about Mank‘s Mankiewicz, as he largely remains the same alcoholic, sardonic writer-genius from start to finish. There is a little bit in there about standing up for one’s beliefs and having the integrity to have your actions follow through with your values, but this message is so milquetoast that it barely registers. I hate to keep comparing Mank to The Social Network, but there are just too many similarities – the chronology jumps, the creation myth of a world-defining achievement (2), the antihero outsider who manipulates his way into high society – and these are just the obvious ones! This comparison, however, does Mank no favours. Yes, The Social Network is a goddamn masterpiece and most movies would not fare well next to it, but one might expect that the creator of that opus might be able to capture the same lightning in a bottle for Mank. Sadly, I believe (admittedly with little evidence beyond a gut-feel) that this is a screenplay issue more than anything. Mank would have benefitted with The Social Network‘s razor-sharp focus on its central story, rather than falling down its various rabbit holes and digressions. The Hearst storyline in tandem with the California gubernatorial campaign is the real meat of Mank, and a better version of this movie would have cut out much of the early Hollywood satire moments and the ‘present-day’ scenes. They add nothing new (oh joy, another tale of how Hollywood is a cynical profit-driven place which cares little for artistic integrity, how original) and are rife with cliches, with the creaky World War II subplots of Mankiewicz’s secretary Rita Alexander (Lily ‘Emily in Paris’ Collins) and physical therapist Freda (Monika Gossmann) being especially groan-inducing in the blatant way they exist purely to humanise the protagonist.
4. This is not to say that Mank is a bad movie. It is actually a very good one! After all, even a lesser work by a master is still worthwhile, and the film feels far more relaxed and loose than any of Fincher’s previous works thus far. I don’t doubt that his exacting process (involving up to hundreds of takes of the same scene) has not changed, but that tight, obsessive sense of control that has been this particular director’s trademark does feel somewhat less oppressive than it usually does. (3) Part of this is the ramping up of stylistic flourish that I mentioned in Paragraph 2, and another major component is the central performance of Gary Oldman. There is a joie de vivre in Oldman’s step that is different from Fincher’s usual moody, angst-ridden protagonists, and the veteran actor can deliver the snappy dialogue and fire off one-liners like no one else. Oldman has always been an inveterate scenery-chewer (it’s part of his charm), and boy does he go hogwild in this movie. He pukes, he slurs his words, he stumbles, he flirts, he makes grandiloquent pronouncements, but it’s all done with a marvelous sense of wit and soul. In any ordinary year, Oldman would be a shoo-in for a raft of awards. The other impressive performance in this film belongs to Amanda Seyfried, who plays Marion Davies as a dumb blonde with deep reserves of intelligence – including being intelligent enough to know how to hide it. Seyfried lights up the screen any time she is on it thanks to the energy and vivacity of her performance, and I must credit the film (and the actor) for rescuing the reputation of a commonly maligned historical figure. Charles Dance does his usual (highly effective) stentorian aristocrat act as Hearst, and Arliss Howard is fantastic as the snivelling figure of Louis B. Mayer, to the extent that I felt like physically reaching into the movie to punch him a couple of times. Of note as well is Tom Burke, who captures Orson Welles’s voice and general vibe perfectly, even though the movie does a real hatchet job on the real Welles’s character.
5. So what is to be made of Mank? It might seem like a cop-out, but the best description of the movie is one that also applies to its protagonist – fascinatingly flawed. There is more than enough of Fincher’s usual technical brilliance to justify a viewing, with plenty of whiz-bang camera pyrotechnics that he has not deployed since the late 90s and early 00s. Add on to that the magnificent performances and the ambitious, quotable screenplay, and Mank would seem like a very obvious ‘great film’. Yet, in telling the story of the greatest of all ‘great films’, Mank fails to stick the landing, with its reach far exceeding its grasp. By trying to accomplish too many goals, it ends up achieving very few of them at all. This feels like a movie that should have been script-doctored (even more than it already was by Forrest Gump scribe Eric Roth) and reassembled to cut out some of its more cliched and unoriginal elements in order to focus more clearly on the aspects that were more thematically resonant. As it stands, there is little that all the talent surrounding Mank can do to untangle the muddled knot of a screenplay in the centre of it all, which is terribly ironic considering the film is about the writing of a great screenplay. An irony, I’m sure, that would be much appreciated by Herman J. Mankiewicz himself. At the very least Mank can say that it shone the spotlight on an underappreciated genius, which for all its issues, gives the film a considerable value indeed.