Like a lot of other journalists, novelists, and playwrights who headed to Hollywood, looking for showbiz success or just to sell out, Herman Mankiewicz believed the movies to be a fundamentally unserious occupation. He was a writer, one who had cut his teeth as a reporter before becoming a drama critic and a fleeting member of the Algonquin Round Table, and then, in 1926, he took a job with Paramount, where he turned out title cards for silents and then scripts for the talkies. There’s a famous telegram he sent his friend Ben Hecht back in New York — one that makes an appearance in Mank, the ungainly new film from David Fincher — that sums up his feelings about the blossoming business in which he has found himself. Mankiewicz, trying to get Hecht to join him on the West Coast, promised that “millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots.” Hecht would take him up on the offer and become one of the defining screenwriters of the era. Mankiewicz’s younger brother, Joseph, would go too, eventually surpassing his sibling to carve out a long, lauded career as a writer, producer, and director.
But Mankiewicz himself became an endearing burnout, a gambler and alcoholic who was as embittered as he was entertaining. By 1940, he had eroded goodwill to the point of being relegated to doing unattributed work polishing scripts — one of which was The Wizard of Oz — when he ended up writing one of the greatest films ever made. Or co-writing. The question of who wrote how much of Citizen Kane remains in dispute as well, with a controversial 1971 piece by Pauline Kael playing a big part in the debate. Mankiewicz initially agreed to work on the screenplay for Orson Welles’s directorial debut without public acknowledgment, only to later fight to share a credit with the 24-year-old upstart. Despite taking place during the period in which Mankiewicz, played by a disarmingly floppy Gary Oldman, holed up on a Victorville ranch finishing his first draft, Mank isn’t ultimately all that interested in relitigating the issue of authorship. Instead, the film, which is periodically dazzling but more often denser than a fruitcake, positions Mankiewicz as a tragic hero, jumping back to the days when its title character was flying high even as the country was in the grips of a depression.
Mank is a movie about fake news(reels), economic devastation, and an election in which an idealistic socialist candidate gets Red-baited into submission by the misinformation-wielding wealthy and influential. It doesn’t overreach for present-day resonance, and it doesn’t need to — but, boy, is it a drag getting to those (or any) stakes. Mank hops between the weeks in which Mankiewicz was working on Kane and the years in which the studios indulged his vices and bought whatever ideas he and his team coughed up, showing how the writer found his sodden way into the orbit of William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the power-brokering news baron who had inspired the character of Charles Foster Kane. Out on the absurdly luxe San Simeon estate Hearst shares with his mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Mankiewicz keeps company with the men manipulating the 1934 California gubernatorial race. Among them were MGM’s Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), who had no qualms employing the tricks of the medium Mankiewicz had always treated as beneath him.
Fincher has never been a writer himself, but in some of his features — like The Social Network, like Gone Girl — you can feel him pushing against his screenplays, creating a tension between what’s on the page and how it’s presented that can feel more interesting than if the two elements were in perfect sync. It’s a tension that Mank could use more of — but the script is by Fincher’s father, Jack, who died in 2003, and the film is cautious and reverent with the structure and writing, even in the stilted, stagy sequences in which Mankiewicz, who’s recovering from a car accident, banters with Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), the prim British secretary assigned to take his dictation. The film’s early acts lay out the past like a series of informational dioramas requiring supplemental plaques, struggling their way through flurries of introductions to historical figures and awkwardly handled context, more often than not leaving Mankiewicz lost in the busy flourishes of some of the scenes. He’s all too much to scale, sometimes coming across more like an ensemble player in the story than the star.
Oldman, a 62-year-old playing a man from his early 30s through his 40s, is age-inappropriate in a way that the movie winks at (when he is told by a colleague that “at your age, you’d be justified in wanting out,” he dryly notes that he’s 43). That dissonance matters less than how diminished the character feels, both as a wit and as a source of social unease, someone who couldn’t help but bite the hand feeding him. The other performances reflect the film’s not-quite-heightened unreality, especially when characters from the flashbacks file into Mankiewicz’s infirmary-cum-office like the ghosts of Hollywood past, present, and future. Welles (a silky Tom Burke), trundles out of the background and into focus like a visiting noble, the brash boy genius who is so sure of himself and not yet scarred by clashes with the system. Seyfried calibrates Davies to be a savvy woman for whom a giddy ditz persona is armor, but also a way to not think too hard about her own choices, as someone enjoying what her nephew Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross) sums up as a “lifetime of starry-eyed self-absorption.” Tuppence Middleton, as Mankiewicz’s weary but devoted wife, Sara, and Sam Troughton, as Welles-appointed babysitter John Houseman, play twinned thankless roles keeping house.
Fincher is too virtuosic a director to make something uninteresting to look at; even when Mank feels aimless, it’s lovely, with pearly black-and-white photography, its occasional hat tips to Kane, and its playful use of slug lines onscreen to place flashbacks and cigarette burns to mark reel changes that are entirely theoretical — especially given that most people will be streaming Mank, which was made under the auspices of the decidedly non–Golden Age studio that is Netflix. Those touches give Mank a bit of ironic distance, which suits it better than the stretches in which the film tries to root itself in an era that doesn’t come to life. That remove is, oddly, what makes the way that Mank rises to the occasion in the end so effective — it surprises you, like a drunk at a party who has gotten garrulous and then maudlin and then manages to say something brutally vulnerable. In its final act, Mank becomes a film about someone who realizes that he is, in fact, the fool, the one who has failed to understand the reach of the business in which he has believed himself to be slumming.
Mankiewicz finds, to his horror, that he cares after all, and that all he has in his arsenal for doing belated battle against those who might have considered him a friend are his words. Mank proposes that the masterpiece at its center was written as an act of war, and the romanticism of that idea is balanced out by the realism of what the work could actually accomplish. Citizen Kane may not have done more damage to Hearst than Hearst was doing to himself at the time, but it did forever seal itself to his legacy, this characterization of the newspaper magnate as a hollow man, unable to use all his resources to make himself loved. How true Kane (or Mank) might be becomes incidental, when you’re swept along by what’s onscreen — in a way you can only really be at the movies.
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