In director David Fincher’s “Mank,” boozy “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) declares, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to …
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In director David Fincher’s “Mank,” boozy “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) declares, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours; all you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” Mankiewicz is referencing his seminal roman à clef targeting publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst and its nonlinear format, but the observation also unsubtly describes Fincher’s biopic, which apes Mankiewicz’s structure without his style or substance. The result is a handsome but hollow pastiche, in which composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross do their best impression of Bernard Herrmann, Fincher does his worst Orson Welles, and Fincher’s late screenwriting father Jack crafts a protagonist who doesn’t leave much of an impression at all.
“Mank” seems designed mainly to address three queries. First is that “Citizen Kane” is a not-so-thinly veiled skewering of Hearst (Charles Dance), something we already knew. At the same time, Kane’s blond, cloistered showgirl mistress Susan is definitely not patterned after Hearst’s blond, cloistered showgirl mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), or something like that.
Second is why Mankiewicz took aim at Hearst, something that is not seriously addressed until the film’s final half hour. Taken by Mankiewicz’s razor-sharp repartee, Hearst invites the screenwriter into Hearst’s social circle, populated by the 1930s Hollywood elite and political footmen. Hearst holds court at San Simeon, his sprawling, lavish manse in the California hills. But Mankiewicz sours on both Hearst and his Hollywood henchmen, led by film producers Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg, after they smear socialist writer Upton Sinclair during his 1934 California gubernatorial campaign. That eventually leads to Mankiewicz being excommunicated from Hearst’s sanctum, with Hearst analogizing Mankiewicz to an organ grinder’s monkey.
Foremost, however, “Mank” is intent on establishing that Mankiewicz alone penned the “Citizen Kane” screenplay, despite sharing writing credit and later an Oscar with the tempestuous, 24-year-old wunderkid director Orson Welles (Tom Burke). It is an insiders debate that appeals only to those already interested enough to know the answer.
Mankiewicz wrote uncredited Mercury Theatre copy for Welles back in New York. By 1940, Mankiewicz is an alcoholic, washed-up writer recuperating from a broken leg suffered in a serious auto accident. Jack Fincher’s narrative oscillates between Mankiewicz’s Hollywood rise and fall and his convalescence at a secluded California ranch, where he hashes out his “Kane” screenplay with a coterie of aids and minders. He is also visited by a cast of recurring characters: Welles collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton) frets over whether Mankiewicz will finish on time, while Davies, her nephew Charles Lederer, and Mankiewicz’s more diplomatic brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) all declare that “Kane” is the best thing Mank’s ever written while urging him to shelve the script for his own sake before taking on the powerful Hearst and his media empire.
The film sustains itself thanks to several supporting turns. Seyfried’s Davies manages to be delightful, strong-willed and sympathetic, and her luminescence pops off Fincher’s black-and-white palette. Burke’s Welles is suitably garrulous, bombastic, and self-absorbed. Dance strikes a rather regal Hearst, but Howard’s Mayer is a smarmy, duplicitous egomaniac who is fashioned as more of an antagonist than Hearst.
But Mankiewicz is the film’s main focus. Oldman mostly mumbles and bumbles through his performance, as both he, the narrative, and the audience constantly crane in search of Mankiewicz’s background and motives. There’s not some mysterious Rosebud to discover. Just a significant figure in Hollywood history distilled to an irascible, inscrutable cipher, an organ grinder’s monkey. “Mank” does not elucidate the backdrop to its subject’s childhood, rise to writing fame, alcoholism, or long-suffering marriage (or why it’s so long-suffering). To flesh out Mankiewicz’s supposed motives for penning “Kane,” the Finchers conjure a fictional filmmaking pal whose tragic demise is instrumental to Mank’s real-life spite. It’s a fugazi in service of “Mank’s” unwitting upshot of conceiving the purported precursors to a far better and more substantive film.
In describing his “Citizen Kane” script, Mankiewicz tells Houseman, “The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll, not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit.” Unfortunately, “Mank” is more icing than cake, a mildly titillating retrospective that triggers more musings about its purpose — and the nearest exit — than it would like.
Grade: C +
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Tuppence Middleton and Charles Dance
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hr. 12 min.
Streaming on Netflix