Film Review – Mank
It’s one thing to make a movie about a movie, it’s a whole other thing to make a movie about Citizen Kane (1941). It’s one of the most written about, analyzed, and debated films ever. Many consider it “The Greatest Film Ever Made,” and is often required viewing in cinema classes around the world. To tell the story of its creation is to travel a path others have already made. Perhaps that’s why David Fincher – a director with an exceptional resume himself – narrows his focus away from the picture and from the boy prodigy behind it (Orson Welles) to land on its screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose name inspires the title of Mank (2020).
Fincher (who directs a script by his late father, Jack) relies heavily on the audience already knowing the story of Kane, its production, its reception, and its reputation in the decades after its release. This is a dense narrative, full of references to Golden Age Hollywood and the political climate of the 1930s. An average viewer may completely miss many of the details that are flung around. Fincher does little to guide us through all of the information, and as a result the entire piece feels cold and detached. For all of its sleek design, exquisite production values, and strong performances, this is one of Fincher’s least accessible undertakings. It’s all style and no emotion – it’s gloss without a beating heart.
Mank (a severely miscast Gary Oldman), is the classic example of the “troubled genius” character. An east coast playwright and drama critic, Mank was lured by the glitz and glamour of Los Angeles, eventually moving to the west coast to be a screenwriter. He contributed his writing skills (often uncredited) to such notable works as The Wizard of Oz (1939), The Pride of the Yankees (1942), and Dinner at Eight (1933). But he would be most remembered for coscripting Kane, winning the Best Screenplay Oscar (with Welles).
But Mank is not about his successes, but rather his struggles with alcoholism and gambling. The structure is broken down into two parallels arcs. The first follows Mank’s process of writing Kane while bedridden with an injury, accompanied by his physical therapist Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and transcriber Rita (Lily Collins). By this time, Mank has already fallen into the depths of his addiction. His days usually end as a sloppy drunk, slurring his words while he talks to his wife on the phone, whom he affectionally nicknames “Poor Sara” (Tuppence Middleton). But being good at your job gives you plenty of space to bask in your weaknesses. While Frieda and Rita are instructed to look after Mank, we sense that the growing empathy between the three is only emboldening his descent.
The second thread flashes back almost a decade, with Mank weaving through the ins and outs of the Hollywood studio system. We see him working with and against studio heads such as David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and – to a larger degree – Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). We also see the seeds being planted in Mank’s mind that would eventually blossom as key elements of Kane. We’re introduced to newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the central inspiration of the Charles Foster Kane character, as well as his lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) who would go on to costar in said film.
Fincher not only tells the story of how Mank would write a masterpiece, but he constructs his narrative as a clear ode to it. Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography is a cool black and white, incorporating old school/impressionistic filming techniques (we even get the occasional “cigarette burns” on the top right of the screen to indicate reel changes). Long time collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross provide a score reminiscent of the era. The set design and costuming calls back to Kane. Large banquet halls, exquisite chandeliers, and fancy costumes seem lifted directly out of Xanadu.
And yet, for as lavish and intricate as the production is, the dramatic tension and emotional stakes remain neutered. The structure of the plot – bouncing back and forth in time to give an overall view of Mank – is a clear call back to Kane but doesn’t work nearly as well. Many characters described their experiences with Orson Welles’ protagonist, thus heightening his larger-than -life mystique. Mank is told from only one perspective – his own – and thus whatever aura there was about him dissipates. Everything is taken at face value; we learn everything there is to know about him almost as soon as he appears on screen. I suppose the intention is to study how Mank succumbs to an industry that he both loathes and adores, but that idea never materializes in a meaningful way. We jump between space and time so quickly that none of the scenes leave a lasting impact. When Mank has to sit back and watch a political rival get elected into office, it comes and goes in the blink of an eye. When Mank goes on a drunken tirade in front of others, we aren’t sure if the film despises him, pities him, or neither.
I’m sure that David Fincher came to Mank for personal reasons, especially given how his late father contributed to its creation. Sadly, his earnest ambitions dissolve underneath a final product that operates as a mere curiosity for die hard Citizen Kane fans. As an engaging story with interesting, fully developed characters, it flounders. My interest sank so quickly that by the end I was struggling to maintain focus. The film is a bit like Charles Foster Kane himself – full of gorgeous decorations and moments of visual artistry, but empty in the center. It’s in desperate need of its own Rosebud.