The trailers for the David Fincher’s biopic ‘Mank’ promised one thing: to tell the story of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s push to write the script for ‘Citizen Kane,’ teasing some juicy origins and tensions with his collaborator Orson Welles. Unfortunately, this was not to the case.
Mank (Gary Oldman) has been involved in a serious car crash that has left him with a broken leg. During his recovery, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) gives him 60 days to write the first draft of ‘Citizen Kane,’ working with typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) to hack it out.
Through flashbacks to 1930, we are treated to Mank’s work with his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) at MGM, interacting with media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), director Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), and more as Hearst pushes the film industry to end the political career of writer and California gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye). Mank’s drunken antics and gambling addictions during this time damage his standing in the film industry, causing tension between him and his loyal wife “Poor” Sara (Tuppence Middleton). Back in the present, Mank is frustrated with the ‘Citizen Kane’ script as Welles puts more pressure on him to finish and his friends beg him to stop.
One thing no one can argue about, Gary Oldman is brilliant, as usual. His on screen presence as he portrayed Mank is fantastic. He has control of the role, showing the historical character in the context of a person. They do not gloss over his issues to glamorize him, nor do they make him so revolting you pull your hair out. It was well-balanced and humanizing of one of Hollywood’s most recognizable writers.
David Fincher’s artistic direction for the movie, trying to portray as if it is filmed on a 1940s black and white reel, is competent. When I watch modern black and white films, I want to see if the story calls for it creatively or if it was unnecessary. With this movie, I did not think it was necessary, but I understand the direction Fincher was going. It did not ‘wow’ me, like say, ‘The Artist,’ but it also did not make me think it was some sort of Hollywood cash grab, playing off people’s nostalgia.
As for the promise of telling us the story Mank’s interactions with Hearst and how he inspired the first draft of ‘Citizen Kane’ and his collaboration with Welles to make it happen. Many wondered if the movie would explore the debunked theory that Mank wrote everything and Welles was just kind of there, instead of the truth that the latter retooled the script, giving Mank credit for the first draft. This was an afterthought in the film.
There is no more evidence this fact than the lack of screen time giving to Orson Welles. Tom Burke is a good actor, so I was expecting the larger-than-life presence that Welles was known for. Not a chance. We only see one brief argument between Welles and Mank about the script, leaving a large hole in the narrative.
Yet, as we are treated to short vignettes of Mank writing the aforementioned screenplay, we get flashbacks that, yes, show him meeting Hearst and dealing with film studio execs, but also a two hour long lecture on, you guesses it, politics.
Upton Sinclair is running for governor in Depression Era 1934 and Hearst is using the power of the purse to finance his political downfall. Sinclair is a socialist, Hearst is capitalist, so naturally, he strongarms MGM into making commercials for his opponent. Not Mank. Mank, you see, wants to keep filmmaking pure and crusades to stop this, lecturing the execs on the differences between socialism and communism. It culminates in the suicide of his friend Shelley Metcalf, played by Jamie McShane, who feels guilt at directing the commercials and misleading the masses. The sad moment was used to enforce Mank’s disgust at the studio’s politicking, except this was a fictional character. When you find this out, it takes the wind out of the sails of the scene.
Essentially, it has the same problem that other Netflix biopics like ‘Sergio’ have. They take a person, an interesting person, but instead of telling their story, they use it as a soapbox. ‘Sergio’ was a big recruitment video for the United Nations. ‘Mank’ was a promotion for the importance of Hollywood (not cinema) in everyday America’s life. The difference between the two movies is that David Fincher is a good enough director to make it more subtle, making you invest in the plot. You catch on pretty quick to the real point of the film when Herman declares, “In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.” Sorry not sorry, the latter is true of both systems of government.
‘Mank’ promised to tell you the story of its subject, complete with the drama of writing what is considered one of the greatest films in cinema history. While it has excellent performances, a unique artistic flair, and stunning visuals to boot, the story was just an afterthought. Instead, we are treated to the Hollywood lecture tour, yelling about how important the film industry is to America, and lectures on wealth from some of the wealthiest elites during one of the greatest economic collapses in American history.
Compelling character studies, cinematic facets, sharp commentary, witty dialogue, and examination of historical figure are replaced with the Hollywood soapbox meant to remind you just how important than they are in your life.
As Mad Men protagonist Don Draper tells a person who claims to feel sorry for him, “I don’t think about you at all.”