In 2003, director Peyton Reed (Ant-Man, Bring it On) recreated the “no-sex sex comedies” of the 1960s starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson, with Down with Love. It recreated not just that era in time but also the hokey filmmaking techniques of its time, including green screen for rear projection as the characters drive. It was a big homage to older Hollywood and a celebration of its outdated filmmaking and storytelling. But was the movie ever more than one elaborate homage? Did the film have any other reason for being than imitation? What about Gus van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Hitchcock’s Psycho? This is what I thought of as I watched David Fincher’s highly anticipated new movie, Mank, a surefire awards contender about Herman Mankiewicz as he writes early drafts of his career masterpiece, Citizen Kane. Fincher goes to a lot of trouble to recreate the look, feel, and sound of Mank’s creative era, but by the end I had one clear summation in mind: Mank is David Fincher’s Down with Love.
Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is washed up and he knows it. It’s 1940 and he’s worn out his welcome at the movie studios he used to be a screenwriting titan, heading story departments and adding witty, sardonic patter to dozens of studio pictures. He was a favored guest of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and a friend to his wife Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), an actress who got a boost from her high-profile marriage. Now he’s on the outs of the industry that has grown tired of his antics. Enter 24-year-old radio wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) who personally wants to work with Mank. Welles has been given full creative control for his feature film debut and wants to make something big. He tasks Mank with writing the first draft and Mank turns to the people he knows best to skewer.
I was not expecting my blasé reaction to a Fincher film. It’s his first movie in 6 years (Gone Girl) and I think maybe his least compelling movie of his career. I’m not going to say that The Game or Panic Room are more artistic movies than Mank, steeped in the Hollywood studio system and lovingly recreating a faded era of bigwigs and big mouths. However, I will resolutely claim that either The Game or Panic Room are more entertaining. I doubt I’ll ever watch Mank again in my life. Thanks to the convenience of Netflix streaming, I watched the 130-minute movie over the course of two days but I was starting and stopping throughout. At one point I found myself zoning out and realized I had missed the importance of the scene and had to rewind to watch again. Dear reader, this was not my expected response at all. Why did I find the movie so lackluster? I think it comes down to the fact that it doesn’t really give you any more insight into Mank, the old studio bosses, the life and allure of filmmaking, the ascending industry of motion pictures and their prevailing cultural dominance, or even on Hearst or intriguing behind the scenes struggles with Kane. You’re just witness to history and not actively digesting and assessing it. In all honesty, you would be better off watching the Oscar-winning documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane or the underseen 1999 HBO TV movie RKO 281 (starring Liev Schireber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mank). Either of those two other movies would give you better intrigue and insight into the men and their legacies.
The character of Mank comes across so superficially like he’s just a catty, booze-soaked genius who is only good for a cutting retort and vomiting on your floor. I cannot state enough how uninteresting the character of Herman Mankiewicz comes across during this movie. He’s exactly the same from beginning to end and it gets rather tiresome. Even his first moments, where every dialogue response has to be pithy or setting up a later pithy remarks, can grow tiresome. It’s as if Fincher has made Mank one of his own characters in one of his own movies. He’s certainly not an unblemished protagonist. He has all manner of self-control problems, from his drinking to his mouth to his gambling to his general impulsivity. There should be drama here especially as he composes what every character tells him is “the best thing you’ve ever written.” I think part of the reason that I never really warmed to this character is that it never feels like anything really matters to him. Sure, he has his liberal values and trumpets causes and spats but I didn’t feel like I ever really knew Mank as an actual person. He’s too flippant, too passing, and too pleased to remain that way that spending an entire movie with this portrayal becomes exasperating.
The screenplay by Jack Fincher (the late father of the director) jumps back and forth between the framing device of Mank being cooped up in 1940 and writing Kane and his earlier experiences in Tinseltown through the 1930s. The framing device is unnecessary and boring. Mank’s relationship with the personal secretary (Lily Collins) tasked to write his dictation is just a dull storytelling device, another person in the room to give Mank a foil to launch his wit, and also, naturally, to remind him just how great a writer he can be. The 1940 Mank doesn’t feel like he’s gained any more wisdom or remorse. The flashbacks, accompanied by typewriter screenplay headlines, never fully coalesce into a clearer picture of the times. There is a lengthy subplot involving muckraking writer Upton Sinclair (literally played by Bill Nye “The Science Guy”) running for California governor, but all it does is establish that the studio heads are on one side of the ideological spectrum and Mank is on the other. There’s some conflict, yes, for him to continue working with these fat cats, the antithesis of his socialist politics, but it’s such a lengthy segment that I kept waiting for more relevance or life lessons. Then there’s a guy who might or might not kill himself and I’m supposed to care. The screenplay feels more like a series of anecdotes that jumps around a bit too much to really offer an insightful portrait of its star.
It also doesn’t help matters that Fincher’s film is part revisionist fantasy about the creation of Kane. This discredited theory stems from film critic Pauline Kael’s 1971 book, Raising Kane, where she proposed that it was solely Markiewicz and not Welles who wrote Citizen Kane. That is true… for the first two drafts. There were five drafts afterwards leading to production. It’s very true that much of the sturdy foundations were laid in place from Mank and his connections to Hearst and Davies (though Mank swore his portrayal of Davies was not intended to be her but the media version of her). It’s also true that Welles would shape and revise what Mank had begun and improve upon an already great start. There are plenty of articles to be read to better educate on the subject, or you can watch The Battle Over Citizen Kane, but the idea that Welles wanted to steal unearned credit and that Mank is some artistic martyr has not held up to decades of re-evaluation after Kael’s initial publication. There really is an interesting story how many ground-breaking rules Welles and Mank and cinematographer Gregg Tolland broke to tell their great American movie, and how revolutionary the movie was and continues to be so modern. You don’t have to resort to revisionist fantasy to tell the story of Mank and Kane, especially when the portrayal of Mankiewicz isn’t exactly notable to engender my passionate outrage.
Another bizarre choice is that Mank sidesteps the real blowback from Citizen Kane. Hearst was a powerful man and using his considerable influence to sabotage the movie. RKO Pictures was offered a sum to sell the film and bury it so it would never be seen. Hearst used his newspaper empire to discredit and defame Welles and his collaborators, but the genius of their work was too much to ignore and was nominated for nine Academy Awards in 1941 including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor. It lost to How Green Was My Valley (the Crash of its day) and only won a single category, Best Original Screenplay. To turn the opposition against Hearst and the powerful mechanisms of capitalism into a squabble with Welles over sole ownership of a collaborative work just seems petty and insulting. Again, there is real drama and real backlash to Kane’s domestic release. Welles was never given complete control again and Mankiewicz faded back into alcoholic obscurity and eventually died in 1953 at age 55. There was much more that Mank could have gone into as a film and yet it just dragged through scene after scene of characters entering rooms, saying pithy remarks, and exiting rooms. More was required.
Oldman (Darkest Hour) is a reliable actor and can be enjoyable as Mank but he’s also victim to the overall tone and limited characterization. His performance is too smirky and self-satisfied, like the character knows he’s going to serve up the perfect one-liner waiting in his mouth at every turn. It’s also a little weird that Oldman is even older than Mank was after he died but Mank’s wife (Tuppence Middleton), who was the exact same age of Mank, is played by a woman almost 30 years younger than Oldman. I see some things from the old system still remain. I thought the two best actors in the movie were Dance (HBO’s Game of Thrones) as Hearst and Seyfried (First Reformed) as his wife, Marion Davies. Dance very much is modeling Hearst like a living king holding court, and Mank is his favorite jester, and the malevolent authority just under the surface is always noticeable, always on the cusp, a powerful man ready to act upon his power. Seyfried gets to reclaim Davies as a character and showcase her not just as a smart actress, who would act “dumb and silly” when she got ahead of herself with Hearst, but as a loving and supportive spouse. She’s goofy, humble, loyal, but also multi-dimensional, far more than the low-class, lonely wannabe opera singer Charles Foster Kane destroys his marriage over that she represented. If anyone deserves to be nominated for an Oscar for Mank, it’s Seyfried and the way she can breathe depth and life so brightly into her role.
Give the tremendous filmmaking pedigree of Fincher, there are obvious technical pleasures to admire. Mank is a stunning recreation of the old studio system, and there is an enjoyment simply watching this world come back to vivid life. The costumes and lavish production design are impressive. Knowing how mercurial Fincher can be as an artist, whenever you’re watching a crowd scene, I think about how long it took to stage every specific element. Fincher is rarely rivaled as a big screen visual stylist with his compositions and camera movements. There’s a gorgeous montage where Mank awaits the gubernatorial election returns and the imagery comes together like a Renaissance painting, reminding the viewer why Fincher made such a name for himself as a music video director in the 80s and 90s. Fincher also adopts much of the technical style of Mank’s era including a sound design that sounds like it’s crackling and humming constantly and “cigarette burns” in the top corner to denote reel changes. Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor produce a score that is jaunty, jazzy, and period appropriate, a big detour from their ominous, fuzzy, electronic-heavy scores we associate with them. It’s a whole lot of effort to make a painstaking homage of an older era but what does the movie offer outside of this homage? I don’t think much. If you’re a fan of Old Hollywood and Citizen Kane, you may get more out of Mank, but if you’re looking for insight and entertainment into the men and the movies beyond stylistic imitation, retreat to the real deal.
Nate’s Grade: B-