Mank is a listless, conventional story of embattled genius, safely told from behind a scrim of sentimentality.
In her notorious New Yorker article “Raising Kane,” which essentially argued that screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz deserved full recognition for penning Citizen Kane (as opposed to sharing credit with Orson Welles), Pauline Kael wrote that “the movie industry was frightened of reprisals,” while also parenthetically observing that “The movie industry is always frightened, and is always proudest of films that celebrate courage.” Kael was here referring to movie magnates’ contemporaneous fears of retaliation from newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, Mankiewicz’s real-life model for Charles Foster Kane, and unlike much else in that long and long-since-discredited essay, the assertion is a sturdy one. To the list of things that Hollywood never fails to celebrate, though, Kael might well have added: “movies about itself.”
Mank, a fictionalized quasi-biopic that covers the alcoholic screenwriter’s work on Kane in the spring of 1940, might thus seem like an ideal project. The film moves between the secluded ranch in Victorville, California where Mank conducted this writing, and a variegated series of 1930s flashbacks — each announced by typewritten sluglines, and each telling a piece of Mank’s backstory that may or may not be relevant to the creation of his masterpiece. In so doing, Mank incorporates any number of scenes that celebrate courage: Mank (Gary Oldman) being told by all and sundry to kill the Kane script, but deciding otherwise; Mank confronting MGM exec Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) about fake newsreel footage deployed against Upton Sinclair during the 1934 California gubernatorial election; Mank throwing down for Sinclair against MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) during an election night party; Mank standing up to whiny wunderkind Welles (Tom Burke) and demanding screen credit for his work; and, for good measure, Mank’s nurse telling of how the screenwriter helped save an entire German village from the rising tides of Nazism.
This is at least one way of accounting for the existence of Mank, which is the kind of lustrous, anachronistic film-object that seems expressly designed for maximum Tinseltown recognition. Exemplary in this regard is DP Erik Messerschmidt’s almost hyperreal, widescreen black-and-white digital cinematography, which recalls (though doesn’t quite approximate) Gregg Toland’s work on Kane, and also includes visual-aural scratches and pops that signal non-existent reel changes. Even beyond riffing on Kane‘s flashback structure, Mank also develops various passages as echoes of, or in counterpoint to, its ostensible model. Somewhat mercifully, Burke’s Welles is mostly an off-screen, voice-of-God presence, but his big scene opposite Oldman’s Mank, where he plays the artist as a tantrum-prone megalomaniac, is clearly meant to evoke Kane after Susan Alexander’s departure. Likewise, Mank’s tetchy confrontation with his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) bears more than a passing resemblance to the dissolution of Kane’s first marriage.
Granted, Mank’s tone is hardly reverential. In fact, its acerbic, whiz-bang dialogue — modeled off of Mank’s real-life reputation as “the smartest guy in the room,” as he laments at one point — presents a view of Hollywood as a nest of vipers, a motley assortment of avaricious, mealy-mouthed mountebanks, capricious courtiers, and village idiots. But despite the script’s ostensible cynicism regarding the contemporaneous industry goings-on — conveyed most vividly in scenes of writer’s-room banter and behind-the-scenes politicking — Mank crucially takes a more presentist perspective regarding Hollywood’s actual output, treating it as a foregone conclusion that Citizen Kane would eventually be hailed as the masterpiece it is, let alone that cinema would even be properly recognized as an art form. Which is also to say that for all of its apparent astringency, Mank reveals itself to be a rather conventional story of embattled genius, safely told from behind a scrim of sentimentality.
Given all this, it’s difficult to account for the involvement of Mank’s director, David Fincher, beyond pointing to the decades-old screenplay written by his late father Jack, a journalist and screenwriter who apparently revered Kane. From Zodiac (2007) to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011) to Gone Girl (2014), Fincher’s films have often taken the form of an investigation, surrounding their central mysteries with a relentless, nigh-overwhelming accumulation of detail, and delineating terrain so dizzying and labyrinthine that their fixed centers arguably become irrelevant, as dead as Kane’s death is certain. By contrast, Mank’s shuffled chronology does little to alter its rigid, unsurprising trajectory — which is another way of saying that any other of Fincher’s recent films would hold up better to a Kane comparison. A lack of journalistic integrity has never significantly harmed Fincher’s work — and anyway, veracity shouldn’t be the last word on any fictional undertaking, so the script’s dubious relitigation of Kane’s authorship is not, in itself, a dealbreaker. But in rendering this particular creation myth, Mank so often resorts to tired caricature and bloodless banter; with few exceptions — Charles Dance as Hearst and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, both excellent — the film’s extensive cast of characters doesn’t register as much more than cannon fodder in a vengeful, score-settling fantasy.
The closest Fincher gets to establishing a compelling rhythm is on the night of Louis B. Mayer’s birthday party, during a deftly edited sequence that delineates a host of competing agendas, political currents, and personal loyalties, while also balancing the pure entertainment factor of the dialogue (delivered by upwards of 10 speakers) with the scene’s narrative momentum (leading into a boozy, fairy-tale jaunt between Mank and Davies). More often, though, Fincher’s film — a screenwriter’s fantasy of a screenwriter’s fantasy — plays as a listless, ambulatory tour of 1930s Hollywood, one that ultimately offers neither the pleasures of a skilled raconteur’s company, nor the fulfillment of a well-chosen, hard-won destination. In attempting to burnish a legend, Mank only contributes to a hardened crust of cliché.
You can catch David Fincher’s Mank in limited theaters beginning November 13 or streaming on Netflix on December 4.