Mank nips itself in the Rosebud

David Fincher’s Netflix production sanctifies the co-writer of Citizen Kane, but seems blind to what made that film great.

20 November 2020

By Henry K Miller

Mank (2020)
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Mank is on Netflix from 4 December 2020.

David Fincher has always had a refined sense of what to show and not show, of what his audience does and doesn’t know. That seems to have left him in Mank, which is an uneven and disappointing film from one of the best living directors; yet it is clearly a much-deliberated-upon film. It has been six years since Fincher’s last, and not just any six. Fincher has chosen to make a film about golden-age Hollywood for Netflix, the corporation that ate the movie and TV business in that time, so his choices about what to show and not show can be taken as a kind of personal statement. In that respect it is something of a paradox.

Herman J. Mankiewicz belonged to what Pauline Kael, in a famous essay, called the Algonquin-to-Hollywood group – cynical New York literary types who were lured to the West Coast to become screenwriters. Washed up at 40, his life had an unexpected second act when the boy wonder Orson Welles, aged 24, had him co-write Citizen Kane (1941). Kael’s essay – a source for Mank’s screenplay, by Fincher’s late father Jack – claimed that the good things in Kane were Mankiewicz’s, with Welles responsible for what she saw as its pretentious visual style. But Welles barely appears in Mank, and its contention that Mankiewicz was Kane’s ‘onlie begetter’ is made quite obliquely.

Tom Burke as Orson Welles and Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz in Mank

The film alternates between scenes of Mank writing Kane while drying out at a ranch in the Mojave desert and scenes from his downward spiral in the 1930s, showing the cynic becoming a born-again idealist during the Depression, railing against the right-wing politics of MGM boss Louis B. Mayer and press baron William Randolph Hearst – into whose social circle he had been inducted – and thereby losing his studio job. The crux of this, depicted at excessive length, and in soot and whitewash, is Upton Sinclair’s campaign to become a socialist Democratic governor of California in 1934, which Mayer and Hearst helped stymie. 

You might somehow connect this story with the political plot in Kane, but only by squinting hard, and it isn’t the Rosebud behind Kane’s greatness. No one in Kane is as villainous as Mayer here, or as pure as Mank. There is something Charlie Kaufman-esque about Fincher – a renowned stylist who has never claimed screenwriting credit, but is closely involved in the writing process – making a film that gives all the credit for an acknowledged masterpiece to a screenwriter with no apparent visual sense, all without showing (or even seeming to understand) why it is seen as a masterpiece. They both came into movies at the top, Welles from radio, Fincher from music videos, but whereas Welles did something unprecedented, Fincher made a franchise threequel, and lived to rue the day. Welles never again had that power; Fincher won it for himself, and his fourth feature, Fight Club (1999), is as extraordinary a product of a major studio as Citizen Kane.

Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst

Unlike the preceding generation of movie brats, Fincher has never seemed reverential towards Hollywood’s past. Shot in black and white, and with cigarette burns, Mank is closer to pastiche than anything Fincher’s done since his music video days. It looks glorious, but should it? MGM might as well be a tyre factory, and Mank hardly seems swept up by its glamour. Again, in our Kaufman scenario, by posing as a ‘mere stylist’, Fincher serves a script that asserts the idea of the screenwriter’s primacy.

Mank’s film history oscillates between the pedantic and the outrageous; more tiresomely, the big historical picture is Hitler-centric. Mank is depicted as Hollywood’s first anti-Nazi (not the only unwelcome echo of 2017’s Darkest Hour). In Zodiac (2007), as good a film about the passing of time as The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), Fincher evoked the mood of a decade without clichéd historical markers. There are good scenes and good lines in Mank, but too many weak links. Lily Collins and Sam Troughton give grating, ‘velly English’ performances, and Oldman is too old for the part. The best thing is Amanda Seyfried, playing Marion Davies, who is treated as inspiration for Kane’s second wife; but the film can’t say why its saintly protagonist would treat this lovely and talented woman so shabbily in his script. After all, there’s no one else to blame. 

Further reading

Mank prints the legend of Hollywood as a gilded cage

David Fincher’s portrait of Herman J. Mankiewicz, the hard-drinking, hard-gambling screenwriter of Citizen Kane, enshrines the self-loathing myth of a studio-era Hollywood populated by idiots. History remembers it differently, says Farran Smith Nehme.

By Farran Smith Nehme

Mank prints the legend of Hollywood as a gilded cage

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