It’s something of a fool’s errand, trying to make a movie about the greatest movie of all time. There’s a reason Citizen Kane holds that title; while it often feels like homework to watch a film everyone and their mother calls “Important and Historical,” everyone I know who’s watched Orson Welles’ 1941 classic goes into it expecting to hate it and comes out thoroughly riveted (even if they balk at the title of “greatest”). And considering the riveting story behind its making – threats from a billionaire newspaper tycoon, attempts by Hollywood to blacklist it, and two egomaniacs at the helm fighting over writing credit – it makes sense that Hollywood, a business that loves to pat themselves on the back, would want to dramatize these events for posterity. Enter David Fincher, the acclaimed director behind Zodiac, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, to tell his version of the story, based on a screenplay by his deceased father, itself based on a controversially fabricated essay by critic Pauline Kael. Fincher seeks to tell the story of an artist trying to redeem a lifetime of sins with one great piece of art, and to both pay homage to and destroy the memory of the Golden Age of Hollywood. In terms of the former, he’s created a decent little morality tale. In terms of the latter…it’s something of a mixed bag.
In 1940, failed screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) has hit rock bottom. After breaking his leg in an automobile accident, his employer, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) pays to send him out to the desert to detox, recuperate, and write. The project? A top-secret screenplay viciously criticizing William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the billionaire behind some of the greatest scandals and horrors in the early 20th century. While writing, Mank reflects on his own past, where he once had a place in Hearst’s inner circle thanks to his clever jokes and his friendship with Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). While Mank thinks nothing of the prestigious friendship and its ramifications, he begins to see the darker side of things when Mank’s boss, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) orders Mank, on Hearst’s behalf, to write fake news briefs and fabricated documentaries to slander and destroy populist politician Upton Sinclair, in order to keep the rich Hollywood elites in power at the expense of those suffering in the Great Depression. Mank hopes to channel all his rage, all his wit, and all his experiences into one scathing screenplay: Citizen Kane, the future greatest film in history.
At its core, Mank takes on two well-worn artist tropes and executes them fairly well, thanks to a unique angle at the hands of the Finchers. In the simplest of terms, Mank is about the corrupting nature of Hollywood (a la The Player) and the notion of the forgotten genius (a la Amadeus, and Mr. Turner, and a whole lot more). These aren’t entirely new stories or themes, so what makes Mank work is the lens he tells this story from. For Mank isn’t a story about a Great Man Doing Great Things. It is a dark fable about a pathetic waste of a human realizing his talents have been manipulated for evil and his suicidal quest to redeem himself in some form. The entire film is the final act of a Faustian bargain, exploring the aftermath of selling one’s soul for a few thousand bucks and an invite to swanky dinner parties. After all, we don’t need a long lesson on the allures that seduced Herman Mankiewicz all those years ago (even if they are fun). We get touches of this when he parties on the MGM lot with a who’s who of 30s writers (see: cameos from Kaufman, Hart, Hecht, and more), the art of selling a particular film inside the complicated studio system, or the always-offscreen shenanigans of the Marx Brothers (a clever touch in Jack Fincher’s screenplay). But no, this is a film about the darkness beneath the surface, and the cost of that luxurious lifestyle so many Hollywood types with Big Ideals become accustomed to along the way. This is a film about Big Hollywood – i.e. Big Business – using its clout to influence contentious elections and create false narratives surrounding the progressive man of the people, Upton Sinclair.
In an era where politicians’ messages are manipulated in talking points and a Red Scare is used to shroud even the most benign (and perhaps senile) of public figures, Mank’s message of rich celebrities being paid to pose as “down to Earth” folk to demonize the coming threat of poor people and minorities has some relevant (if obvious) weight. Perhaps the best moment analyzing this ability to spin fables that feel easy to buy comes when Louis B. Mayer, after delivering a rat-a-tat walk-and-talk monologue about his quest to make money, stops to deliver a tearful speech to his employees begging them to give up 25% of their salaries as a way to “cut corners during the Depression,” only to reveal his falsity within moments of stepping off the stage. It’s a terrific sequence, and drives to the heart of this film’s loathing for Hollywood’s sleazy business underbelly. Mank pulls away the heroic curtain to portray the “daring” writers and “admirable” activists within Hollywood as the dancing monkeys they are, willing to bend over for their overlords to avoid the reality that they are a dime a dozen (in fact, Hearst delivers a monologue declaring as much after a seemingly-”powerful” dissection of the mogul’s corruption). Even if I personally wish the film had spent more time exploring the backroom dealings and the corrupt 30s studio system, this is still a message that everyone needs to hear, whether they’re the saps buying into the myth peddled by Patricia Arquette or Tucker Carlson, or the actors that think their rinky movie is going to actually inspire change (at most, one film a decade actually accomplishes as much).
The problem with Mank, however, is that more so than even its dissection of a flawed system, it is a story about one man’s quest for greatness. And as far as the version of that man presented in this film, that man is the most milquetoast, uninteresting human being to ever grace the planet. Herman J. Mankiewics doesn’t do anything in this film. His writing is always offscreen. The alcoholism he constantly battles is both developed, consumed, and fought offscreen. His fights with Welles over creative control are all offscreen. Even his views are passive – while there are hints that he may be interested in Sinclair’s plans to stand up to fat cats like Hearst and Mayer and actually fight for the starving Califronians, he never actually takes a political stand or expresses a political ideal – indeed, his only real “fight” is to avoid giving up his paycheck to the Republican candidate when ordered to by his boss (more Not Doing Things). And even that is less out of political idealism and more out of wanting money to gamble and drink. He doesn’t do anything, become anything, or find anything – this Mankiewicz simply exists.
Now, it would be one thing if his unremarkableness was a part of the story, similar to how Robert De Niro’s Frank Sheehan was a passive loser in last year’s The Irishman. But despite the portrayed mediocrity, the film still wants us to believe that this version of Mankiewicz is an unparalleled genius. After all, characters are constantly telling us this, and famous uncredited co-author John Houseman is presented here as an idiot who can’t understand Kane’s greatness and contributes nothing. No, he is somehow supposed to be A Genius while never demonstrating to us that he has a single interesting trait in his body. Which is weird, because the real-life Mankiewicz was a fascinating character. He was funny enough to write many of the Marx Brothers’ best jokes, he famously created the iconic opening to The Wizard of Oz, and literally saved an entire town of Jews from the Nazis by paying for them to immigrate to America. Most of these facts aren’t in the film, and the ones that are inexplicably glossed over. The script can’t even begin to properly explore his friendship with Marion – they were friends before the film begins, and they remain friends after Mank famously threw her under the bus with an admittedly slanderous portrayal in the final cut of Kane. Nothing happens, and no matter how great Oldman is in the role, it can’t save a flop of a character.
And then there’s the filmmaking, for which Fincher spared no expense in recreating the aesthetic of classic 40s filmmaking. It is undeniable that the filmmaking is impeccable – however, I would argue that it is too impeccable. Because Mank so desperately wants the viewer to view it as a contemporary of Kane that it forgoes all attempt at original artistry to impose on the viewer a forced sense of homage. Whereas Kane changed the game both as a feat of storytelling and as a bit of technical derring-do, Mank chooses to imitate this form for no reason other than “You liked it the first time, right?” At least with The Artist the technology metaphorically implies an ever-progressing world leaving behind an artist who refuses to change. It’s admittedly gorgeous, but artistically empty filmmaking. Fincher goes overboard finding different ways to pay homage to the era, including inserting little burn marks into the “film stock,” old-school credit sequences, mismatched cuts, those little circles that reflect a need to change the reel, and so on. The longer the film goes on, it becomes more about the spectacle than it does the substance.
Hell, in some cases, it even hurts the film – the sound design, canned to resemble that distant echo of a 40s soundstage, comes off as horribly forced – not to mention that you can’t hear the dialogue. And while cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt has some lovely uses of shadows, the lack of depth in digital camerawork leaves the homage as flat and phony, effectively killing the façade. And while it’s unfair to compare this film’s production work to that of the game-changing Kane, Fincher does invite these comparisons upon himself, thus making it far less impressive when Oldman fails to age over 20 years of story when we already know that Welles convincingly portrayed 60 years of a man’s life through acting and makeup already. And he did so without having an insane gimmick where a woman’s husband seemingly dies at sea, is never mentioned again for an hour and a half, only to magically come back from the dead. No, the only two true successes in the filmmaking are Kirk Baxter’s skillfully retro editing and the unbelievably great score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, which properly reflects the somber, moody music of the era in a way that actually fits the film around it. Outside of those few successes, the filmmaking feels less like an attempt to make an important movie than it does Fincher demanding that the film is important – and there’s a huge difference.
Thankfully, most of the acting is so good, it helps elevate the film in areas where the story of the distracting cinematic masturbation fall flat. While I’m disappointed that Oldman’s Mank is a nothing character, I would be remiss to say he doesn’t play the role quite well. The legendary Brit certainly knows how to deliver an impassioned monologue – his bitter, drunken improvisation of what is clearly an early draft of Citizen Kane during Hearst’s dinner party is truly solid acting. Tom Burke doesn’t have a lot to do as Orson Welles, but he shines in every bit of it, completely evoking the cocky 26-year-old about to change the face of cinema forever. Speaking of not having a lot to do, one of the great faults of the film is the complete butchering of Mank’s wife Sarah, here played by Tuppence Middleton. Middleton is far too good for this role, bringing energy to her every scene even if the script mostly just expects her to stand around and dote on her husband (she’s really done dirty here). I certainly would have liked more of her than the extended sequences with Lily Collins. Collins is fine as Mank’s nurse/secretary, but between her terrible British accent and her ability to randomly pop up in scenes with an unnecessary comment or factoid, it’s hard to see anything more than Emily in Paris popping up to stop the film dead in its tracks time and time again.
Tom Pelpheny is fine, if unmemorable as future two-time Oscar winner Joe Mankiewicz, while Jamie McShane has a few solid scenes as Mank’s ill-fated friend Shelly. But if there are three performances worth noting in this film outside of Oldman’s, they belong to Dance, Howard, and especially Seyfried. Dance is surprisingly subtle as the powerful Hearst, choosing to revel in dark scares and brilliant monologues as opposed to dominating the screen. And Howard is hilarious as the short, manipulative Mayer, laying out monologue after monologue in beautiful rapid fire and remaining sleazy, bombastic, and funny throughout. But it’s Seyfried who really blows me away. Seyfried breathes life into the oft-ridiculed starlit, veritably lifting up the film with her whenever she arrives on screen. Like the Golden Age of Hollywood, her very smile is a tool, brightening the dreary film as she screams and jokes and laughs her way through life, torn between her love for a tyrant and the realization that he will not only never treat her as evil, but has likely doomed his career in the process. I cannot overstate how great she is in the role, and she damn near runs away with the film in the process.
Mank is undeniably a good film, but walking away from it, I can’t help but wonder: why isn’t this a slam dunk? Was it the script? The direction? The fact it has to live up to Kane? It’s hard to say. All I know is that this could have really been something terrific – a scathing critique of the 1930s studio system and the ways in which studio heads manipulated employees and viewers to create their own interests. It’s a story that will always remain resonant (the rise of cable news and so-called Pundits is the clear endgame), and yet instead, we are subjected to a story about a boring drunk trying to write a script. There’s nothing new here – nothing about Kane, nothing about elections, just the same-old news that Hollywood fame is just a bunch of crock. And when you don’t have anything worth saying, nothing – not great acting, great directing, or a series of well-executed parlor tricks – can cover up the hollow center.
Mank is now streaming on Netflix