Director David Fincher’s Mank (available to stream on Netflix), a look at the life of Oscar-winning screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, is shallow, smug, dishonest, tedious, and artificial. Not even the great Gary Oldman can save it.
Mank is advertised as the story behind the writing of Citizen Kane (1941), which is widely considered one of the greatest movies ever made (something I agree with), if not the greatest movie ever made. Kane was certainly ahead of its time, a movie with a narrative bouncing all over the place to tell a story using impression as much as drama.
When you love old movies as much as I do and understand that during this time studios were spoon-feeding flashbacks — filling the screen with optical waves and dramatic music (Casablanca (1942) is a perfect example) so no one missed the fact We Are Going To Go Back In Time Now, Okay? — it’s mind-stopping to realize Welles co-wrote and directed Kane just one year out of the 1930s.
What’s more, Welles had the hubris of a young man (he was only 25) to target one of the most powerful men in the world, William Randolph Hearst, who was not only an influential publisher (although his reign was already coming to an end by 1940), but a legendary host to the Hollywood elite at San Simeon (aka Hearst Castle), a near-mythical place everyone should visit if they have the chance.
But Mank isn’t here to talk about any of that. Not really. The writing of Citizen Kane is merely a framing device and a blatantly dishonest one that argues (falsely) Welles had almost nothing to do with writing Citizen Kane, that his shared screen-credit and Oscar-win were pure thievery. This is a lie, and you are hearing this from someone who is not a Welles enthusiast, who — other than Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), The Stranger (1946), and Touch of Evil (1958) — finds Welles’s directorial output stiff and distant. There’s no question Welles knew where to put a camera. The rest is lacking.
Regardless, the idea Welles didn’t contribute as much to the Citizen Kane screenplay as Herman Mankiewicz is fake news.
So what is Mank really about? Well, this is where the movie gets smug. Mank uses its own spoon-fed flashbacks to be about Mankiewicz strolling through 1930s Hollywood, cracking wise, floating above it all, and being the Last Honest Man In Town. Around him are only craven studios moguls (Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick)), corrupt media titans (Hearst), and massive egos (Welles). Everyone else who isn’t Mank is either a sell-out, a Mank-worshiper, or too self-involved with celebrity to care about all the injustice.
But there’s our Mank, our woke man of integrity, witticism-ing his way through all these corrupt hypocrites by way of alcoholic clap-backs.
The first 20 or so minutes are actually fun. The dialogue is sharp as we tour Hollywood’s true Golden Era. Tedium sets in pretty quickly, though. Eventually, the relentless witticisms only add to the artificiality of a movie that has so much black and white digital trickery you feel like you’re watching a videogame. Fincher might argue that “artificiality” is the idea. After all, look at the movies from that time, all shot on backlots. Fair enough, but those movies feel real because the backlots were real, in the sense they actually physically existed — which is a far cry from pixels.
Mank and Mank are also selling us socialism. The eeeevil Mayer and Thalberg and Hearst are eeeevil Republicans who invent fake news (but only after Mank’s second-worst Forrest Gump moment accidentally gives them the idea) to stop Upton Sinclair, a socialist, from becoming California’s next governor.
“Communism spreads the poverty,” Mank claps back as he speaks-truth-to-power as a guest at Hearst Castle, “While socialism spreads the wealth.”
Talk about fake news.
But back to Welles…
The great hypocrisy in Mank is the tearing down of Orson Welles. Fincher (working from his late father’s screenplay) pretends to be bravely exposing the establishment as too powerful, too much of a monopoly (while working for Netflix LOL), but all he’s really doing is protecting it against renegades and true outsiders like Orson Welles who, for all his flaws, was an iconoclast, an artistic revolutionary, an anti-establishment maverick so far ahead of his time it would take Hollywood a half-century to catch up to Citizen Kane — and Mank still shits all over him, annihilates him, punishes him, and in favor of who? A studio hack. A man who was part of The System. An insider who dined with studio heads, who entertained at Hearst’s table, and who only sold all these people out after he had nothing to lose after he hit bottom.
If you look closely, the Mank in Mank isn’t bravely biting the hands that feed him or speaking truth to power or risking it all. He isn’t risking anything. All he’s doing is what countless has-beens have done through the ages: dishing dirt on old friends, writing a tell-all because that’s all he’s got left to sell.
Nothing feels real in Mank, most especially the character of Hearst’s longtime lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), another woke character with no depth. You see, she’s a self-knowing, intelligent blonde playing a dumb blonde because that’s the only way to get ahead in the Hollywood Patriarchy. Whatever. Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Barbra Stanwyck, Katharine Hepburn, and Olivia de Havilland would like a word…
Mank is very proud of itself, goes on for far too long, and lacks any real stakes. Will Mank finish the screenplay on time? Real edge-of-the-seat stuff.
The sub-plots are just as weak. By the time we’ve forgotten about a RAF flier, we learn his fate, and then there’s some guy we barely know who has a crisis of conscience over his role in producing fake news.
Mank’s first-worst Forrest Gump moment? Welles loses his temper and starts throwing things, which gives Mank the inspiration for the iconic room-destruction scene in Kane.
Actually, almost every scene in Citizen Kane is iconic. Mank is as forgettable as any other over-produced TV movie — and it’s fake news.