David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, is a portrait of famed screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz and the director’s first feature film in something like six years. Fincher hasn’t missed a step. The subject is a name people might recognize from the co-writer’s credit on Citizen Kane (the other name being, of course, Orson Welles), or they may recognize him from his association with a certain style that was popular in the 1920s and ’30s. When we think of that snappy, sophisticated patter and droll humour which colours our collective ideas of ’30s American films, Mankiewicz (or ‘Mank’ as he insisted people call him) is largely responsible.
The film, written by Fincher’s now deceased father Jack Fincher, takes place as Mank is bedridden after surviving a debilitating automobile crash and attempts to write the screenplay for Citizen Kane in a mere sixty days. Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is in the midst of developing a Heart of Darkness adaptation and wants Mank to complete a draft in that short time so Welles can ‘noodle’ on it for the subsequent thirty days. Stuck in the middle of the Mojave Desert in an old house with two women — a German nurse and a British typist (Monika Gossmann and Lily Collins respectively) — Mank must dry out (he spends much of the film sloshed) and produce the screenplay.
Between Mank’s titanic ‘sprint’ (despite being bedridden) to complete the screenplay and attempts to locate alcohol, the film treats us to flashbacks that give us a sense of who he was, his affectations and causes, and the various friends and foes he contended with during his studio days. These historical characters include in no particular order: Irving J. Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer, William Randolph Hearst, Marion Davies, Joe Mankiewicz (Mank’s brother), Shelly Metcalf, and Charles Lederer. This is not to mention quick appearances and quips by S. J. Perelman, George S. Kaufman, and Ben Hecht. Watching them trade slick bon mots while the film careens around, fast paced and entertaining, is an acknowledgement of the style and period being portrayed. The script is a cornucopia of witticisms and zinging dialogue. Here are some of Mank’s best lines in the film, purely random and taken out of context:
Mank’s wife, Sara: “Weren’t those the days?” Mank: “And the nights weren’t bad either.”
Marion Davies: “Watch those stairs, they’re treacherous.” Mank: “Every moment of my life is treacherous.”
Mank (referring to studio head and political nemesis Louis B. Mayer): “If I go to the electric chair, I’d like him to be sitting on my lap.”
Mank (to a studio head who offers him an insincere invitation to come see him about a job as they leave a funeral): “I did come when you extended the same invitation after Shelly’s funeral. I couldn’t get past your secretary’s secretary.”
The first half of the film is certainly more light-footed than the second; Mank wheels around, chatting in his laconic style. The music is up tempo and even zany, the camera is always moving and people talk in that machine gun rat-a-tat-tat you expect from movies of the era depicted. At one point, Mank shows up drunk to meet Lederer at a train station, having been given a lift there by a couple who joyously wave him off. He stumbles around soused until he collapses on a cart holding luggage which a porter wheels off with Mank in tow. The film emulates the cultural offerings of the epoch it portrays, using black-and-white cinematography and that hyper-attenuated style of dialogue. It even slightly imitates the narrative conceit employed by Citizen Kane with Mank bedridden and reflecting on his life.
Nonetheless, it never completely feels like a period piece. The frame rate is different and the surface is too polished. Gary Oldman proves to be a terrific actor, as always, but he doesn’t look a lot like the real Mankiewicz. He’s put on weight and the lumbering alcoholic stagger is convincing, but there’s something very particular about his face that always looks very ‘Gary Oldman’, no matter whom he plays. It’s the eyes, the dead to rights way he looks through you, and the jowls which hang in that accusatory droop. I doubt he could ever truly imitate the chubby, cherub-cheeked insouciance of the true Mank.
But these are minor cavils. The fast wit and furious pace remind me of the way Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994) imitates those same qualities in Dorothy Parker and her Algonquin peers — of which Mank was a member. It is the same fastwheeling sensibility lampooned in the movies by the Coen Brothers – especially in Hail Caesar!, Barton Fink, and Miller’s Crossing. The question is: will modern audiences, especially Netflix audiences, cotton to this style? It requires a knowledge of older movies which may quickly be fading. It’s the kind of movie that may appeal more to movie nerds than the casual Fincher fan and, perhaps at this point in his career, he doesn’t much care about that. Or it might be a work that Fincher has created out of a sense of fealty and debt to his dad. I can’t imagine the pressure of executing something like that; perhaps it is something that can only be done after one’s patriarch has passed on.
Despite being a self avowed film nerd, I’m not as familiar with Mank’s films as I should be. I do know my way around Citizen Kane however (I love Welles!) and that subplot provides the backbone of the movie. Mank contends the jigsaw puzzle structure of Kane and its ambitious overreaching themes actually originate with Mankeiwicz and not Welles. The struggle between the two reaches a climax when Mank demands credit instead of a bonus. He sees it as his best work and refuses an additional payment of ten thousand dollars in order to renegotiate his contract with Welles. In the end, it was contested and they both received credit – ironically, despite a raft of nominations, the Best Screenplay would be the only Academy Award the film would walk away with, and Welles and Mank would share the Oscar.
Citizen Kane has been hailed as the greatest American film of all time. Its considerable innovations in style and structure — not to mention tour de force performances and cinematography and editing and the fight Welles put up in order to have it released — is the stuff of legend. The film lays the foundation and sets the framework for the legend and tragedy we come to associate with Welles and his career in Hollywood, so it’s interesting to have that troubled by the knowledge he was not quite a boy genius, but someone who tried to rob a writer of his credit. Gregg Toland (Kane‘s cinematographer) is extremely important to Kane‘s production as well, but Welles clearly shows his admiration for Toland by sharing a title card with him.
Other aspects of the film deal with Mank’s relationship with newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). They are also the principal subjects of the screenplay Mank is working on for Welles and as things move forward, Mank has to dance a delicate jig as he becomes further alienated from the couple. Mank tries to convince his notoriously rich and powerful associates, not to mention others in the movie biz, that Hearst and Davies are not the models for the characters in his screenplay, but it is to no avail. The friendship between Mank and Davies is particularly interesting for its lively and unpredictable quality; it’s charming and flirtatious while also remaining somehow wholesome, never quite descending into adversarial hostility. Seyfried is luminous in the role (her eyes and smile have a four hundred watt intensity), and for that matter all the women are fantastic in the film, especially Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s wife, Sara.
The second half of the film is not as light as the first. It veers into politics (the rise of the Nazis abroad, the battle between the Democrats and the Republicans for the governorship of California – it’s hard to believe that California at one time was a Republican stronghold) and Mank throws himself against Hearst, Mayer, and their coterie of small minded millionaires. Despite his personal flaws (excessive gambling and drinking), Mank is a generous man and we are told by his German nurse that he paid to have her entire village brought to America. He picks drunken fights with Hearst and Mayer that get him nowhere and fill the second half with strife; which may be less a of thrill for more casual viewers.
The film also speaks to a time when motion pictures were just beginning to be taken seriously as a cultural force and highlights film as the medium that will eventually supplant literature as our dominant cultural force.
In the end, the film is less of a biopic than an exercise in sensibility and style. People who flock to this movie because they liked Gone Girl may be disappointed. It speaks to Fincher’s continued assurance as a stylist and filmmaker; and I feel it ranks with his best movies. In fact, I’ve been amazed at the high quality offerings Netflix has released over the past year (Marriage Story, The Irishman, I’m Thinking of Ending Things) and this film is no different. It may not win the popular vote, but in the words of Osric towards the end of Hamlet, it is “a hit, a very palpable hit!”