Here’s a movie pitch. A man with a broken leg is holed up in ranch in the middle of nowhere where he has 60 days to write a screenplay. And it’s in black and white. Not exactly a sexy pitch, but director David Fincher‘s latest picture, “Mank,” is a terrific homage to old Hollywood that is tailor-made for the film buff.
This is a film that sets out to capture the feel of Hollywood’s golden age. Fincher (“Fight Club,” “Zodiac,” “The Social Network) and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt have manipulated the black and white images to really capture the mood of the period. Everything, from the opening credits to the hard fades to black between scenes, screams classic Hollywood.
And the sound has a slight echo that simulates the experience of watching the film in a large, old-fashioned cinema — remember when we actually went out to the movies?
The plot is a simple one, albeit a simplicity encompasses a deep reservoir of nuance and history — the story of writing arguably the greatest film of all time, “Citizen Kane.” Screenwriter Jack Fincher (the director’s father) has drawn on “Raising Kane,” critic Pauline Kael’s notorious 1971 pair of New Yorker articles that question the true authorship of the script and the notion of Orson Welles’ all-encompassing role in its creation. Interestingly, she did not argue that “Kane” was not a great film, merely that Welles didn’t write it, and that the credit should go to Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the titular “Mank.”
There’s no need to invest too much time here on the ensuing controversy, which continues to this day and has been reignited with the release of “Mank” (although there are some great articles out there on the Internet, a rabbit hole down which any film nerd would love to fall), but some knowledge of “Citizen Kane” adds to the understanding and enjoyment of this film.
“Mank” doesn’t dwell much on Welles, dubbed the “dog-faced boy” genius. This is Mank’s story, the story of man seeking to matter, to make something of value — a man coming to terms with a wasted talent.
The movie opens with Mank wheeled into a ranch house in Victorville, California, his leg in a cast, where he has been sequestered to write a screenplay for Welles’ Mercury Players, called simply “American.” Mank is an alcoholic and a gambler, and he is holed up in Victorville as much to keep tight reins on him as for his recuperation.
Before long we flash back to Mank and his scriptwriting cronies in early 1930s Hollywood — MGM to be precise. Mank is a former journalist and member of the famed Algonquin Round Table, and the writers have a definite jaded cynicism for the film work — they are clearly just there for the money (a source of Mank’s inner struggle between art and commerce). There’s a hilarious scene where they improvise a monster movie that is “director proof” for David O. Selsnick, roping in new guy Charlie Lederer (Joseph Cross) for the finale.
Later, Charlie invites Mank to visit his aunt at her house. It turns out the aunt is Marion Davies (charmingly played by Amanda Seyfried) and the house is San Simeon, the palatial compound owned by William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mank’s natural wit and charm earn him a regular place at Hearst’s house parties, among Hollywood’s movers and shakers, as well as national politicians.
The use of flashbacks, introduced by scene directions from the script, reflects the structure of “Kane,” which Mank alerts us to when he tells his “babysitter,” John Houseman (Sam Throughton), “The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll. Not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit. You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression.”
The impression one gets of Mank is of a man who is both cynic and idealist (isn’t a cynic simply a disillusioned idealist?). We see the seeds of his discontent when he brings his brother, Joe (Tom Pelphrey), to see Louis B. Mayer (an excellent Arliss Howard). Joe Mankiewicz, incidently, went on to write and direct “All About Eve,” for which he won director and screenplay Oscars, lest we believe his older brother’s barbs about a lack of talent.
While it is an elegy to old Hollywood, the film is also an exposé of the brutality of the studio system. Mayer’s line, “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory, what he bought still belongs to the man who sold it, that’s the real magic of the movies” is brilliant. Mayer manipulates the studio staff — his “family” — for salary rollbacks, which Mank shrugs off with a wry, “Not even the most disgraceful thing I’ve ever seen.”
There are allusions to modern-day politics. At a San Simeon gathering, the question is asked, “Who will take Hitler seriously?” to which Mank replies, “Forty million Germans, apparently.” Never underestimate the average person’s ability to be fooled by a supposedly populist message. Writer Upton Sinclair’s run for California governor smartly echoes contemporary politics, with media alternative facts designed to confuse the electorate, but it’s subtle enough not to distract from the film’s enjoyment.
Oldman won the Oscar for his turn as Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour.” That was pure Oscar bait — famous historical figure, physical transformation — but this is a much better showcase for his acting chops. Oldman, while being 20 years older than the real-life Mank, plays the alcoholic writer with pathos and wit that completely balances the wasted sot and brilliant writer. For all his faults, one cannot help but be charmed by him.
Lily Collins plays Rita Alexander, Mank’s secretary. Collins maybe familiar to some as the star of the fluffy “Emily in Paris,” and is the perfect optimistic foil to Oldman’s cynical Mank. Tuppence Middleton plays “Poor Sara,” the long-suffering wife, as a woman who knows exactly who he is and loves him anyway. There is also a poignant turn from Jamie McShane as Shelby Metcalf.
Joe Mankiewicz warns that taking on Hearst would mean the end of Mank’s career, but he doesn’t care about self-preservation. He knows he has been wasting his talent for years. This is his magnum opus, a way to go out in style. Ironically, Welles is at the start of his career, yet he also refused self-preservation. “Kane” certainly made the rest of his career much more difficult. It is no surprise that these two victims of their own egos should have butted heads over credit. However, the reality is they needed each other. “Kane” is a masterpiece precisely because of the two of them and their belief in the rightness of their vision.
In a seeming response to Kael, we discover the script is 350-pages long and Houseman says the “Dog Faced Boy” will have plenty of pruning to do. Mank says, “I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that’s his job.” There’s the out. There is no doubt Welles made it a “film” rather than simply words on a page.
The original script may be by elder Fincher, but there is no doubt younger Fincher took the script and “noodled” it to high places. That, after all, is the collaborative nature of film, no matter how much an auteur the director may be — and Fincher is certainly listed in that category.
“Mank” is a masterpiece of wit and style and the Finchers have combined to create a wonderful homage to a golden age of film, in the same way that Mank and Welles combined, in whatever way, to create the perfect embodiment of art and celluloid.
While “Mank” may not be a perfect film, it is a perfect companion piece to “Citizen Kane” for any self-respecting film nerd. It is rare a review has footnotes, but I have added a series of links to expand on the history of the events surrounding one of the greatest films ever made.
“Mank” stands alone as an excellent film. But if it serves to turn people back to “Kane,” too, well, that’s no bad thing.
“Mank” is available to stream on Netflix and is rated R.
Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” part 1.
Pauline Kael’s “Raising Kane” part 2.
An interview with Mank’s grandsons Ben and Josh Mankiewicz on NPR.
A feature about Kael, Mank and Welles.
A story about “Mank” on NPR’s “Fresh Air.“
An IMDB video about “Mank” and the question of the authorship of “Ctizen Kane.”
The New Yorker article about “Mank” and Pauline Kael.