The year is 1940 and Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Mank to his friends and enemies) is thirteen years away from fulfilling his lifetime ambition of drinking himself to death. Feeling, perhaps accurately, that his drunken sardonic rants have long since burned most of his bridges to the Hollywood establishment, he accepts a contract from the flamboyant ‘boy genius’ Orson Welles to ghost write a script called Citizen Kane that’s guaranteed to immolate the rest of them. Mank decides to base his unflattering portrait of an American media titan, destroyed by loneliness and resentment, on a personal acquaintance and one-time friend William Randolf Hearst. After all, what’s the worst that can happen?
First things first: Mank is not Citizen Kane. Perhaps the legacy of Welles’s searing opus as ‘The Best Film Ever Made’ has actively begun to hurt Citizen Kane as generations of film students go “wait…that’s it?!”, but frankly that’s their problem not Kane’s. The fact that Donald Trump describes Kane as his favouriite film tells you all you need to know about both it and him. If he’d actually ever watched it, he might find some of the parallels between himself and Charles Foster Kane’s bloated aged self rather uncomfortable, but he only picked it because the film’s a byword for cinematic genius. For what it’s worth if, for some reason, you’re curious about Trump’s actual favourite film, it’s on record as Jean Claude Van Damme’s Bloodsport. Plus ça change.
Mank is instead something of a tone poem that luxuriates in texture to the exclusion of all else. David Fincher has one of the most distinctive visual styles in digital filmmaking and Mank sees him gleefully junk it to rummage through the dressing-up box of long abandoned camera tricks. Mank is a collage of cross fades, deep focus and vertiginous zooms all rendered in fuming black and white; a greatest hits collection of classic Hollywood lensing. There are no limits to the depths of Fincher’s nostalgia geek out: he even edits in the little black cue changer marks in the top right-hand corner of the screen and puts a genuinely authentic 40s crackle on the actor’s voices. Some will find this delightful, others exhausting and self-indulgent, but really without it Mank would be nothing. The script was written by the director’s own long deceased father so this is clearly a deeply personal project for him, but it’s missing something ineffable. Fincher clearly realises this on some level and tries to fill that hole with such swing for the fences visual brio that he almost carries it off, flipping an average script into a directorial wonderland.
The issue lies in Mank’s structure or lack thereof, which is somewhat ironic as it is ripping off Mankiewicz’s own, what else, Citizen Kane. Much like his most famous work, the film skips wildly across time periods (each period is introduced screenwriter style, i.e. EXT. San Simeon 1934, which is cute) as we trace the life experiences which informed the Kane script. The problem is that Mankiewicz is a brick wall of a character, he is all acerbic sarcasm and heavy drinking. The wisecracking script allows very few moments of introspection and Mank as a character is static: he starts out circling the drain and that’s where he ends up. Gary Oldman does good work as the smartest guy in the room who can’t help sabotaging himself, but by starting when Mank is already a rumpled mess we don’t get any sense of what made him this way in the first place. The jumping time period also gives the film a juddering ghost-train feeling; you’re always aware of the rails guiding the story, and the constant mini climaxes of each flashback suck out the narrative space that could build to a more organic dénouement. Instead the movie just kind of ends after two and half hours.
So why see it at all? Because there are some really great sequences that strobe in and out as Fincher shifts focus like an indecisive Don Juan. There is probably enough raw material for three great films here but Mank can’t bring itself to commit to any one of them. For a movie ostensibly about the writing of Citizen Kane, it spends a hell of a lot of time fixated on Upton Sinclair’s failed 1934 run for Governor of California. For those not in the know about failed gubernatorial campaigns from the early 30s (and if not why not?): Sinclair was a socialist whose progressive, Bernie Sanders-esque campaign offended the deeply conservative captains of the celluloid industry in California, whilst quietly exciting the liberal intelligentsia like Mankiewicz who were nonetheless too cynical to come out and outright support him. As a result, Sinclair sees his movement crushed by a sinister alliance of Hearst’s right wing media empire and the willing connivence of Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard, excellent and skin crawling vile) who uses MGM to run out literal fake news broadcasts to the masses, starring disguised industry players decrying Sinclair as a godless communist. This proves a rich and deeply timely vein of drama, but the problem is that we just cruise through it for 40 minutes and then it’s done and we’re onto something totally unrelated. As a result of the overstuffed plot the characters feel like thumbnail sketches, just delivery systems for sassy quips. The female characters are particularly underserved, barely being worthy of the word ‘characters’, with the partial exception of Marion Davies, a career best Amanda Seyfried, whose luminous dark eyes and warmth light up the film. Another highlight is Charles Dance’s Hearst, whose stern visage belies an unexpected depth. The role is almost absurdly underwritten but Dance does a lot with a little. We’re never truly given an exploration of the conditional friendship between him and Mank, and that also feels like the kind of thing an entire film could have been built out of.
The one who suffers the worst if the enfant terrible himself, Orson Welles (Tom Burke). At first Fincher cleverly keeps him on the fringes of the film wreathed in velvet shadows, a godlike voice on the telephone offering Mankiewicz a Faustian pact for posterity; Godot on speed dial. It’s one of the most effective parts of the film, which makes it even more crushing when at the end of the film he shows up in the bright daylight and you realise that Fincher might have been keeping him back because Burke is offensively bad in the role. It seems that Fincher’s father took Pauline Kael’s long debunked diatribe Raising Kane, that claims Welles was just a dilettante who stole Mankiewicz’s genius and passed it off as his own, as a foundational text for the script. This is an untrue and risible account of a collaborative screenwriting process that was full of enough twists, turns and duelling egos tohave made for a far more dramatic storyline than “genius writes world changing script, phony kid steals the credit.”
Mank is a hard film to get a grip on, as ephemeral as the billows of cigarette smoke that smoulder constantly throughout the film. There are certainly pleasures to be taken in Fincher’s peerless mise en scène (the authentic Hollywood score by Trent Reznor is a particular hoot), and thanks to the snappy dialogue and (mostly) commanding performances it can never be called boring. Still Mank is a curiosity, a film for enthusiasts and film nerds. Admittedly it could have been much more than that, but it’s certainly not a waste of anyone’s time. After all, what were you expecting, Citizen Kane?
Mank is available on Netflix