Holed up in the remote North Verde Ranch in California’s Mojave Desert and nursing a broken leg, veteran screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), acclaimed and notorious in equal measure, scratches away at a screenplay that will become Citizen Kane (1941), the first film from New York theatre and radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke).
A scandalous drunkard, “Mank” has been supplied with a nurse, Fräulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann), a secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), and a serious supply of barbiturates to help deal with alcohol withdrawal. For the script, Mank draws on his experiences as part of the inner circle of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his friendship with the tycoon’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). So, like in Kane, we jump back and forth in time, as Mank reminisces about his days breathing rarefied air in 1930s Hollywood.
The logline for Mank has generally referred to the battle over screenwriting credit for Citizen Kane, but in truth, that’s a very small part of the proceedings. Director David Fincher, The Social Network (2010), working from a script by his late father Jack, comes down on the same side as the pugnacious Pauline Kael, averring that Mank deserves the lion’s share of credit for what is widely regarded as the greatest movie of all time, and the film does cover that film’s Academy Award win for Best Screenplay, which Mank and Welles used as an opportunity to snipe at each other over the credit.
Really, though, Mank is the story of its subject’s ethical awakening and subsequent self-destruction. The writing of the first draft of Citizen Kane is not the focus of the film, but rather the framing device. We spend slightly more time and certainly a lot more emphasis on Mankiewicz’s life in 1930s Hollywood, and that’s for the best. Both Finchers understand that there’s really no good way to dramatize the writing process (trust me on this; I’m doing it right now, and you’d be bored to tears watching). Instead, trusting that the viewer has seen Citizen Kane (and if you haven’t, grow the fuck up and go watch Citizen Kane), Mank ruminates on what could have inspired that film. Certainly, the old “Citizen Kane is a hatchet job on Hearst” story is nothing new, but Mank gets down into specifics: moments, meetings, arguments, and clashes of conscience that, in the world of this film at least, eventuate in our man Mank tearing his old benefactor a new one on the page and, mediated by Welles, the screen.
So, who is Mank?
“The funniest man in New York,” according to one commentator, and Mank’s rapier with, and penchant for, iconoclasm saw him lauded when he decamped West to take up screenwriting at MGM under studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). As played by Gary Oldman, he’s louche, arch, sardonic, charming, rumpled, crumpled, and seemingly driven to always bite the hand that feeds him. This causes him no small amount of blowback and his loved ones no small amount of pain. More than once, he asks his long-suffering wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) why she stays with him; the answer is that he’s never boring. That’s also why Hearst keeps him on the dinner guest list at San Simeon (the model for Kane’s Xanadu); “I like the way Mank talks,” the magnate says, never expanding on that simple explanation and certainly never being publicly questioned on it.
Talking — and by extension writing — is what Mank does best, and he spends his time drinking, gambling (a five-grand bet on the speed of a falling leaf is mentioned), and delivering barbed bon mots in the Algonquin Round Table style. The appellation “court jester” is tossed around, and it’s pretty accurate; at Hearst gatherings of the great and ostensibly good, Mank stands out, a sozzled, sarcastic one-man Greek chorus, ruefully amused by the world of excess and self-importance he finds himself in.
Mank’s ironic detachment comes to an end in 1934, and the Californian gubernatorial race between Republican Frank Merriam and progressive socialist Upton Sinclair (amusingly played by real life distant relative Bill Nye — yes, the Science Guy). While the MGM writers’ room might be packed with intellectual lefties, the plutocrats who run the show are naturally staunch capitalists, and when our man Mank gets wind of the dirty tricks Mayer and Hearst employ to smear Sinclair, the question of how complicit he is in the whole rotten system becomes too big to ignore.
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour (2017), is almost certainly looking at another Oscar nomination from his work here. While not a close visual match for the real-life Mank, his weary charm and clear intelligence serve him well here, and watching him rail against both his world and himself is never less than fascinating. In an utterly stacked ensemble, the other big standout is Amanda Seyfried, Les Misérables (2012), as Davies. Normally a footnote or punchline at best, Davies here is a fully rounded character, not a gold digger or a ditz, but someone with both a clear understanding of who and where she is, and an honest affection for both the patrician Hearst and the sour Mankiewicz.
But the real big name on the card tonight is David Fincher, noted perfectionist and film bro poster boy, who brings his customary exacting detail and demanding directorial standards to the matter at hand. As a film, Mank isn’t the near-docudrama that, say, Zodiac (2007) is. Fincher prints the legend here more than a little bit, not just in his cleaving to the pro-Mankiewicz account of the writing of Kane, but also in altering who said what to whom, and when, and where, in service to the greater purpose of his story. Out in the wild, only deep dive film heads will pick up on it, but it does indicate an ever-so-slight loosening of the tight control for which he is known. I wouldn’t want to attempt any long-distance amateur psychoanalysis, but perhaps, in this case, fealty to his late father’s script won out over actual historical accuracy. Still, according to the cast, 200 take shots weren’t unknown on set, so don’t let it be said he’s relaxed too much.
The whole thing is lensed in beautiful deep-focus black and white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, the period-evoking visual choices abetted by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch’s jazzy, Old Hollywood score. We even get script headers instead of chapter titles to both locate us temporally and remind us that this is, if not a complete fiction, certainly a creation — a movie about the movies. Hollywood loves that sort of thing, and so do I, but what really lands here is Mank’s emotional and ethical journey from a man happy to profit from corruption to one who must speak against it, and well outside the comedic space allotted to him by his lords and masters. Forget Citizen Kane for a minute and reflect instead on A Man for All Seasons and the price of moral honesty. That’s the company in which Mank finds himself now, and deservedly so.
5 / 5 – Don’t Miss!
Reviewed by Travis Johnson
Mank is currently playing in select theatres and is streaming on Netflix from December 4th