7/10 Mank is a fine film and certainly more than you could expect from a typical Oscar-season offering, but something’s missing.
March 1940, Victorville, California- Outcast Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), confined to his bed with a broken leg, dictates the first draft of the screenplay that would eventually become Citizen Kane. The film was generally known, even before it was released, as an unauthorized and deeply unflattering portrayal of newspaper icon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), with whom Mank was close though the early ‘30s. Mank details their relationship through several flashbacks.
The issue of who did what on Citizen Kane’s screenplay is actually a very big deal. The film was a Hollywood revolution for several reasons, but one of the biggest was its non-linear story structure, with the life of Charles Foster Kane told as a patchwork of first-person perspectives. Despite still being broadly considered the best film ever made, its script was the only category for which it won an Oscar, partially because it was blackballed by Hearst’s media empire.
Mank depicts a discredited version of events in which Mank is the tragic hero who did all the work and Orson Welles (Tom Burke) was the cruel boss who demanded all the credit because he’s an egomaniac, but that all only pops up in the film’s 11th hour. There’s entire libraries you can read about the real story of Citizen Kane and the underlying real story of William Randolph Hearst, but Mank doesn’t really care about those, so I don’t either. The story is every inch Baudrillard’s “pure simulacrum” at this point.
The film is mostly concerned with the political landscape of California during the Great Depression, particularly the 1934 gubernatorial race between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair, which eerily echoes recent elections. Sinclair, the self-styled leader of a socialist movement, runs up against an outrageous propaganda campaign that Mank is intimately involved with – this, again, is mostly based on innuendo, but the politics are real.
There’s quite a few surreal 2020 moments in Mank. “We’ve got to get people into theaters, but how?” is a hell of a line in a movie that hit Netflix the day after Warner Bros. announced it would release all of its 2021 films the same day on its streaming service. “[Hitler] won’t be around long. The Germans are a thoughtful, considerate people,” is a very uncomfortable thing to hear a month after 70 million Americans voted for a second term of Donald Trump.
It’s focused on the mid-’30s to the point that the half of the film in which Mank is actually in bed writing is difficult to get involved with because no one onscreen really cares. There are a couple of buttoned-up professionals who had apparently expected Mank to be professional about things as well and are distraught when he runs behind schedule, but whether or not he’ll make it is never realistically posed as a dramatic question. Undercutting this attempt to generate narrative tension even further is Welles, always on the other end of the phone laughing with glee that he got Mank in the first place. Everyone’s always quick to emphasize how much they like the script thus far.
Burke does a decent Orson Welles, but even a decent impression of Orson Welles is still just a pale imitation. Oldman is wonderful, of course.
Mank’s aesthetic is nicely inspired by Citizen Kane. You’ve obviously got the black and white, but also the flashy lighting techniques and deep focus shots that made the elder film such a sensation in 1941. The flashback-dominated plot obviously echoes Citizen Kane as well, but like many of that film’s hallmarks, it’s quite common nowadays.
Mank’s formalism and imagination is really helped by the fact that none of this is in living memory. This is the romanticized era of Hollywood, the dream that died decades ago that we’re all still told and still defines the town, and they’ve taken steps to actually make it romantic. They even added cigarette burns onto the digitally shot and distributed film for that authentic old-school feel.
I might not know what cigarette burns are if it weren’t for Fight Club, director David Fincher’s 1999 classic. When you think of a movie directed by David Fincher, Fight Club is probably one of the first that would come to mind, every moment saturated in his unique grimy bleakness, but despite his uncanny ability to infuse his style into almost any circumstance, Mank doesn’t feel like a David Fincher movie at all.
It’s obviously something of great personal import to him – his first feature film in six years, which he’d been planning to make for 30, with his late father, Jack, as the credited screenwriter – so it’s strange and quite disappointing that the final result bears so little of his signature.
Mank may be relevant in 2020, but not nearly as much as Citizen Kane itself, a movie that turned Hollywood upside down in 1941 and has only gotten more artistically vital and politically urgent since. Mank isn’t just not the greatest movie ever made, it’s a decent impression of the greatest movie ever made, the one sitting at the end of my home media shelf, two images of the real Orson Welles’ face staring at me as I watch Mank instead, in my home instead of in a theater.
I’d gladly make time for something more in Fincher’s style, but the bottom line is that even a decent impression of Citizen Kane is still just a pale imitation.