David Fincher’s homage to golden-age cinema paints a bland portrait of the notorious screenwriter.
“You can’t capture a man’s whole life in 2 hours, all you can hope is to leave an impression of one.”
So what impression are we to make of Herman Mankiewicz, the subject of David Fincher’s fractured biopic Mank? That he was an alcoholic and compulsive gambler, certainly. That he was a talented wordsmith, no doubt. That he was a satirist of integrity and conscience who penned the screenplay to Citizen Kane as a repudiation of the California conservative political machine, well, that’s a little harder to square.
The circumstances that, to the director at least, make Mankiewicz deserving of an entire biopic is the controversy surrounding authorship of the script for Citizen Kane. Despite being the credited screenwriter of the film, Mankiewicz’s contribution to the final version is hotly contested in certain film circles, with some attributing the majority of the film’s creative thrust to Orson Welles, the director-producer-star and all-around wunderkind behind the film.
That Mankiewicz AKA “Mank” (Gary Oldman) wrote the original draft of Citizen Kane is never in dispute in Fincher’s story, whose father Jack is credited with the screenplay. Taking place over two intercutting timelines, the film documents Mank’s two-month stay in an isolated desert bungalow in 1940 where he labors over the first draft of the film while bedridden with a broken leg. This timeline is punctuated by flashbacks to Mank’s tenure at MGM during the Great Depression, where he joins the inner circle of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) via a friendship with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (a dynamic Amanda Seyfried). Though Mankiewicz never confirmed it, it’s generally accepted that Citizen Kane is directly based off of Hearst’s life.
The first thing you notice when watching Mank is the tinny, analog quality of the audio, which sounds like it’s coming from a television in the neighbor’s apartment down the hall. It’s a choice intended to imbue the film with the warm atmosphere of a classic talkie, but the final result could be more accurately described as “cute.” It’s cute that the film is shot in black and white, and it’s cute that there are fake reel-change dots in the corner of the frame. But what all this cuteness adds up to is a whole lot of artifice propping up a poorly-defined story about a not-particularly-interesting man.
While Mank’s feud with Welles may have been the impetus for this story, that relationship takes up surprisingly little screen time, with most of the protagonist’s conversations with the notorious director (impeccably portrayed by Tom Burke) taking place over the phone. The real conflict in Mank revolves around the titular character’s proximity to the political fallout of the Great Depression, specifically the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of socialist author Upton Sinclair (played in an improbable cameo by, of all people, Bill Nye). Ideologically, Mank sympathises with the socialist cause and uses his talent for wordplay to ruffle feathers within the more conservative upper-class circles of studio executives and newspaper moguls in which he runs. Mank’s disillusionment only grows when he discovers the involvement of studio head L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) in producing phony newsreels denouncing Sinclair in a kind of Depression-era version of fake news.
Through it all Mank remains a tortured but otherwise passive observer, a “court jester” speaking truth to deaf ears in the halls of political power. He offers little practical resistance to this railroading of democracy other than occasional acerbic commentary between belts of whiskey. This is where the film betrays its bourgeois liberal perspective, that thinking progressively is the same as acting progressively, and even then only so far as your own social position isn’t threatened. Mank does next to nothing to substantively advance the socialist cause he sympathizes with, the sum total of his political activism being to deploy rapid-fire Sorkinesque banter at upper-class cocktail parties. In terms of political bravery it’s about on par with Nancy Pelosi clapping sarcastically.
The film vaguely suggests that the Citizen Kane script is Mank’s way of assuaging his guilt over his failure to take action during that period, he the ethically-tortured Jedadiah Leland to Hearst’s Kane. But the emotional weight of that decision is never conveyed definitively via the narrative or Oldman’s inscrutably aloof performance. If there is an emotional arc here it’s so subtle as to escape detection.
In fact, the impression one is ultimately left with about Mankiewicz is the opposite of the one the film tries very hard to convey. In the flashbacks Mank is shown as holding court over a gregarious boys club of outlaw screenwriters at MGM, something seemingly meant to evoke the jovial camaraderie of the party scene in Citizen Kane. But the perpetually rumpled and alcohol-bloated Mank and his crew of screen bros mostly just come across as a bunch of creeps, with Mank’s witty rejoinders striking more the tone of feeble dad jokes than the effortless poetry of a genius.
This makes the parade of adoring women — “platonic mistresses,” as the film puts it — in Mank’s life that much harder to credit. There’s his young, hot secretary (Lily Collins) who adores him as a surrogate father; the young, hot Marion Davies who adores him as a sort of favorite uncle; and his young, hot wife (Tuppence Middleton) who, when asked why she puts up with him lamely replies, “I’m never bored,” as if that serves as an unimpeachable explanation.
David Fincher is a director adept at probing the darkness and perversion that live in every person’s soul. So it’s surprising that in Mank he fails to effectively channel that darkness into a narrative as compelling as the classic films he is trying so hard to imitate. But even more than that some people just don’t deserve to have entire movies made about them, and if Herman Mankiewicz really was a complex and fascinating individual then Mank fails to do his story justice.
Venmo me a tip at @paykristengrote and I’ll reply with a Mank pun.