Mank December 9, 2020
2 Hrs., 11 Mins.
ank, an enjoyable if slight movie about the inception of Citizen Kane (1941), might be director David Fincher’s most meticulously made project — and he seems to be having a good time showing the viewer that meticulousness. With a narrative ping-ponging between 1940 (its present day) and flashbacks to the 1930s, it’s been crafted to replicate the look and feel of a Hollywood
Golden Age drama to a T.
Shot in black and white by Erik Messerschmidt, Mank has the same spectral shimmer that has given the so-called classic era a permanent otherworldliness. People’s faces look so soft and pearlescent that even the plainest person can look like a beautiful ghost. When shadows decorate a room, they seem blacker — more ominous. To lend more authenticity to its visual imitations, every few moments in Mank a cigarette burn will make a cameo on the right corner of the screen — a commonplace stamp in an era where an editor could not hide the need for a new reel. Sound designer Ren Klyce ensures that when people talk, it sounds like they’re speaking into the microphone used on an old MGM set — an attempt, Fincher said in an interview recently, to make the feature hit the ears the way a '30s movie discovered in a UCLA movie archive would. Since he’s working off a decades-old, long-shelved screenplay written by his late, former journalist father Jack, Fincher is also careful about preserving what the former had wanted to achieve with the movie, albeit with some polishing.
Fincher has never not been a meticulous filmmaker; in fact he’s notorious for his meticulousness. He forces his actors to endure marathonic takes (Mank star Amanda Seyfried estimates doing some scenes upward of 200 times), and notices things in the editing room no one else might. (In a recent Times profile of the director, collaborator Brad Pitt remembered one time seeing in some early footage of a project “the slightest imperceptible wiggle from the camera, and you could see Finch literally tense up — like, it physically hurts him.”) Before Mank, the perfectionism had the ultimate aim of making sure the viewer was more effectively immersed in what was going on in front of them — not getting distracted by an extraneous visual or a performance varying in its conviction from scene to scene. You weren’t supposed to notice Fincher’s precisionism; not noticing was the point. Fincher’s attention to detail hasn’t changed with Mank,
but now there’s an element of him showing off. We’re meant to take notice of the level of care — love, even — with which it has been made.
The assiduousness pays off. Even though Mank is dramatically lacking (there’s no real emotional climax, and when the end credits start rolling it doesn’t especially feel “over”), it’s a movie I liked living inside. I couldn’t help but think of the experience I had had last year watching Once Upon a Time in Hollywood.
That movie, while slow-burning to the point of feeling narratively unfocused initially, so evocatively recreated its 1960s setting that I was foremostly glad to just be watching it.
Mank is in large part based on Raising Kane (1971), critic Pauline Kael’s novella-length essay first released in two parts in The New Yorker. Kael, who helped bolster Citizen Kane’s reputation as one of the best movies ever made, asserted in the piece that the film's co-writer, theater critic turned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, should have received sole credit for the screenplay. (He was said to have collaborated on the script with 25-year-old wunderkind star-director-producer Orson Welles.) The essay incited immediate controversy, and is now considered journalistically dubious. Shortly after publication, Kael’s claim was more or less debunked (first with a 1972 Esquire article penned by Welles’ buddy Peter Bogdanovich). The consensus was that Mankiewicz wrote the movie’s foundation, with Welles doing enough reshaping of it to make a half-and-half credit fair enough. But Raising Kane is nonetheless an incisive piece of criticism, and even if his role is overinflated, it successfully makes a case for Mankiewicz’s largely-forgotten-about genius, which was always one of Kael’s central goals. (She’s said that she wasn’t trying to be malicious to Welles — just bring more prominence to someone who had long been overshadowed.)
Mank doesn’t reiterate Kael’s one-author claim. But it does further flesh out the truth that Mankiewicz was a frequently brilliant left-leaning writer increasingly vexed by the conservatism and avarice of the industry in which he'd been working. Since his 1953 death from uremic poisoning, Mankiewicz’s name has been associated with “tortured genius,” squandered potential. He was 55 when he died; he didn’t again work on a movie of its same caliber after the release of Citizen Kane, whose sole Oscar (it was nominated for a total of nine) went to Welles and Mankiewicz for their screenplay. When Welles said “you can kiss my half” when a journalist asked him what he would tell Mankiewicz in response to their win (neither man attended the Academy Awards in 1942), it was almost a kiss of death. Welles would make more masterpieces, albeit under consistently fraught circumstances. Mankiewicz would remain mostly a sidenote.
n Mank, Welles is only a minor supporting character; he makes a few short appearances, most of them check-ins, and is played by Tom Burke with a just-right precocity and rounded speaking style. Mank, which runs a little over two hours, centrally wants to show (or speculate on behalf of) the viewer what might have inspired Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to write Citizen Kane.
Like the latter, it unfurls nonlinearly. It toggles back and forth between two timelines. One of them covers the period, in 1940, where Mankiewicz, recently injured in a car accident, holed up at a ranch in Victorville, Calif., to pen the screenplay. He has an assistant, a gamine Englishwoman played by Lily Collins, transcribe for him as he basically does his writing verbally. The other covers a few years in the 1930s (starting with 1930) during which we get a feel for Mankiewicz’s place in Hollywood. Most important of all in Mank is its conjecturing around Mankiewicz’s friendship with the fake-news-pioneering media magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), on whom Citizen Kane is extremely clearly based, and the mogul’s longtime mistress, actress Marion Davies (Seyfried). (I recommend watching Citizen Kane and reading at least the first part of Kael’s essay to avoid losing your bearings watching Mank.)
Citizen Kane not incorrectly could be considered Mankiewicz’s quasi-“revenge” on Hearst. But how does someone get to thirst for something along the lines of writerly vengeance? The 1930s flashbacks often feel like cinematized grievances; they fester and fester until the blow-up can't be contained. Mank
dramatizes the role Hearst and the MGM studio bosses Mankiewicz worked for, ruthless Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg (Arliss Howard and Ferdinand Kingsley), played in influencing the 1934 gubernatorial race in California. (It was between Republican Frank Merriam and socialist Upton Sinclair; some of the discourse around the two inexorably seems attuned to now.) For Mankiewicz, it’s shown, his complicity in their warped scheming and self-serving publicity efforts (they went for Merriam) was one of the chief factors exacerbating his worsening alcoholism and general frustration with the systems in which he participated. In the movie’s most explosive scene, Mank crashes a party at the Hearst castle very sloshed and proposes a toast that devolves into more of a roast. It's the cataclysmic catharsis for his pent-up frustration. It’s quite a bit different tolerating the icky politics of co-workers and employers when they don’t have the ability to pretty efficiently overturn public opinion in their favor.
Mank persuasively depicts the oppressiveness of the era’s studio politics, and the directness is as startling as it is sharp. Rarely are movies throwing it back to the studio-system era as enthusiastic about depicting the ugliness swimming underneath the glittery images it consistently offered. You can feel Mankiewicz’s frustration simmering; you can understand why, more and more, he’s willing to offer rebuttals to myopic conservative ideas that could potentially cost him work. In the scenes featuring conservative Hollywood personnel socializing with the Hearst world, the wastefulness and general cultural unawareness embodied by the people in the room is almost thick in the air. No wonder Mank couldn’t stomach it for very long.
Few of the characters in Mank ring very multidimensionally; they’re defined mostly by one or two attributes, though the actors are good enough to make something out of little. Mankiewicz’s wife, Sara, played pungently by Tuppence Middleton and facetiously called “Poor Sara,” is all self-aware patience, for instance — she’s a “long-suffering wife” type who knows how people think of her and is pissed off about both that and, of course, her always-rocky marriage. The moguls are mostly just wicked, power-obsessed capitalists, though, to be fair, I’m not sure power-obsessed capitalists like Thalberg and Mayer have that interesting of inner lives. (I can’t imagine they would disagree that their main driving force in life was attaining and then building on their power.) For characters who are not Herman J. Mankiewicz, it’s more about what their presence can do to a room, and how Mankiewicz, who has some playful reply to any comment, responds to them. (Like Citizen Kane, Mank’s dialogue, though maybe too stylized to feel emotionally very true, is often quick and trenchant — sort of like the newspaper comedies of the 1930s, a genre which Kael had thought found a peak in Citizen Kane.) So it often goes in the generally thin-feeling biopic genre. If the protagonist is pretty well-defined, the people surrounding them rarely seem to us like real people. They’re more story propellers, totems of history who briefly get a moment to shine.
ank has an exception in its version of Davies, who is played wonderfully by Seyfried. Long relegated to leading parts in movies that don’t quite deserve her or supporting parts in great films where she is likely to be overshadowed, Seyfried finally gets a role through which can effectively channel her luminousness. Pretty much the only person among the
commingling Hollywood/Hearst glitterati that Mank can bear, Seyfried gives Davies a big-eyed, melancholy radiance. She is dependably the smartest person in the room aside from Mankiewicz, though less likely to make that clear to everyone. (She's a habitual peace-keeper.) At a party one evening, Davies and Mank are the only people in the Republican-stuffed parlor who are genuinely worried about what Adolf Hitler is doing, and who actually understand rather than pin misguided fears on Sinclair. When we first meet her, Davies has nearly resigned herself to the reality that while she may not exactly be living the life she wants to, she has done what she needed to do to ensure a life of comfort and access. Seyfried exceptionally captures the sadness (albeit a privileged sadness) underlying what we figure Davies herself probably knew: that while her association with Hearst was beneficial in pursuing and succeeding in the art she loved (acting) in the short-term, it may after a while overshadow her actual accomplishments. Perhaps it has started to already. Underneath Davies' victories is a trapdoor of loss — some things you really can’t buy.
In Citizen Kane, Davies’ equal, Susan Alexander, was a wannabe opera singer for whom Hearst's equal, Kane, built a theater and bought, through heavy advertising in the papers he owned, a career. Alexander wasn’t a terrible singer, but she also wasn’t that great of one, either. Audiences and critics didn’t like her much, not only because she wasn’t worthy of a spotlight but also because her husband had baldly tried to buy her a respectability most everyone else in her field has to work hard for. After the film was released, Welles worked for the rest of his career to clear the air around what was inevitably going to be an obvious misconception once Davies lost her cultural capital: that it was Hearst, and mostly Hearst alone, who had gotten her where she was. Hearst was indeed pivotal in helping bring Davies screen success (he did a lot of the same
promotional work Kane had done for Alexander), but she genuinely was a gifted performer. No one can purchase someone’s one-time box-office dominance for them — you can't buy an audience's love.
Mank does more damage control. It as much argues for Mankiewicz’s underratedness as it does Davies’. She’s a woman who, we’re shown, was pragmatic about what it might take for her to prosper but who also had to live with the sacrifices some opportunities called for. Davies is now remembered first for being Hearst’s girlfriend, second for her acting contributions. Mank’s best scenes are the ones which find just Davies and Mank interacting — particularly the extended one where they’re roaming the grounds of the Hearst castle, past the gargantuan cages accessorized with exotic animals and the big fountains and the ostentatious greenery, and they have a shared and treasured moment of respite. They’re with someone who gets them, and if not gets them, exactly, someone who’s willing to understand.
Oldman’s presence, in contrast to Seyfried, has a thorniness. (Some of it, it’s worth noting, doesn’t necessarily have to do with the movie itself.) He thankfully isn’t overacting — something he tends to do when he’s playing someone with a big name — and he gets right the crux of Mankiewicz’s disillusionment. But he is, I think, miscast. He’s too old for the part, for starters. Oldman is 62, and in the movie Mankiewicz would be in his 30s and 40s. The effect Oldman has, even in the scenes covering the earlier part of his career, is of someone a few steps away from their early death, the drinking and gambling and depression creating a sheen over everything. While it would be ahistorical, it wouldn’t be very surprising if Mankiewicz croaked once he turned in Citizen Kane’s first draft. One doesn’t doubt Mankiewicz was weary in a way someone older than him might be when he lived, or that his demons aged him more rapidly. But what is essentially the visual manifestation of these attributes throws the movie out of whack, and makes it harder to find the character’s center. Disaffection in your 30s and 40s is not quite what it is in your 60s.
Fincher, like Welles with Citizen Kane, finds an interesting visual middle-ground between realism and artifice in Mank. And we’re not lost on the sort of humorous contradiction that this is a movie sedulously recreating old Hollywood aesthetics (themselves meant to be appreciated in a theater) being put out on a service like Netflix. But the artifice as brought on by Oldman’s cockeyed casting feels more out of place than purpose-serving — maybe a misguided attempt to build on the idea of Mankiewicz’s lifelong out-of-placeness in a more literal way. Some critics have found a moment in the movie where Oldman, deadpan style, alludes to the fact that he’s 45 charming — a funny acknowledgment of the casting’s wrongness. But it struck me more as brazen. The movie would have very likely resonated more with the title character played by someone closer to Mank’s age; the funereal quality of his dissatisfaction isn’t quite right. Mank isn’t the masterpiece it had been anticipated to be, which is in some ways disappointing — how nice it would be to have a supplement to an already-established masterpiece be one, too. Still, it's a movie I had a hard time resisting, and it's been made with such self-assurance and an infectious love for the subject matter that ultimately it’s the good stuff and not the shortcomings I remember. B+