Directed by David Fincher
Screenplay by Jack Fincher
Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross; Cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt; Film Editing by Kirk Baxter
With Gary Oldman (Herman Mankiewicz), Amanda Seyfried (Marion Davies), Lily Collins (Rita Alexander), Tom Pelphrey (Joe Mankiewicz), Arliss Howard (Louis B. Mayer), Tuppence Middleton (Sara Mankiewicz), Monika Gossmann (Fraulein Freda), Joseph Cross (Charles Lederer), Sam Troughton (John Houseman), Toby Leonard Moore (David O. Selznick), Tom Burke (Orson Welles), Charles Dance (William Randolph Hearst), Ferdinand Kingsley (Irving Thalberg), Jamie McShane (Shelly Metcalf), Bill Nye (Upton Sinclair)
It is touching that noted American film director David Fincher has finally brought to the screen – at least the home screen, if not the silver one – the script written by his father, Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. In a way, the film is about film parentage as well. Citizen Kane (1940), Orson Welles’ first and greatest film, is a stakeholder in the last generation of American films, laying the cinematic groundwork for much of what came in the succeeding eighty years since.
I recently re-watched David Fincher’s The Social Network (2011), with a script by Aaron Sorkin, based on Ben Mezrich’s account of Mark Zuckerberg and the founding of Facebook. It’s a snappy, well put-together, film, with excellent performances by Jesse Eisenberg as Zuckerberg, Rooney Mara as his girlfriend, and Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker, among others. Sorkin’s script shines, and Fincher uses enough film wizardry to keep the sparkling script in high gear.
Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the screenwriter for Citizen Kane, is the protagonist and the principal subject of the eponymous Mank. In the early 1940s, Orson Welles, newly hitting stardom because of his sensationalistic and very popular radio broadcasts, is given carte blanche by MGM magnate Louis B. Mayer to pull together a film of any sort; there are no restrictions. Welles calls on Mankiewicz, a sharp-witted New York writer and member of the famous Algonquin Circle, to create a script. Mankiewicz agrees, and Welles puts him up on a ranch in California to produce something – anything – in sixty to ninety days.
Though Mank is witty, Welles knows he has a penchant for drink and rebelliousness, so he enlists actor and director John Houseman (Sam Troughton) to supervise things, and gives Mankiewicz a full-time British secretary, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) to help with the typing. Whether Mank will finish the script on time is a big question, and whether he will produce a decent script is a bigger one. Mankiewicz is known as an alcoholic, but Houseman plies him with sedatives to ward off the liabilities of alcohol in getting the script done effectively. Between moments of inspiration and indulgence, Mank forges ahead, drawing on his trove of memories about newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst to push his vision forward.
Though Mank provides an interesting period history of Hollywood, and David Fincher exhibits a good amount of directorial supervision in creating a stimulating visual production, the film, overall, lacks the sparkle I just re-encountered in “The Social Network.” Part of the problem is the script for Mank, which is all over the place. Though all the historic details it includes are fascinating, the script tries to tackle too many things at once in painting a picture of the era. Can one actually follow that Mankiewicz (aka Mank) is playing a coin betting game with Eddie Cantor? And what about the whole Algonquin crew that shows up at MGM studios? One gets a brief glance at S.J. Perelman, Ben Hecht, and George S. Kaufman, but it’s very episodic and pretty much of a tease.
Most of the film is based on fact, but there is a certain amount that is not. John Houseman, who here is portrayed as a kind of middle-manager who shows up at the ranch to make sure Mank is writing the script on schedule, actually lived at the ranch as served a more active role in the process. Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane), a character who complies with Louis B. Mayer’s efforts to spread propaganda against the senatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair in 1934 and bears some serious consequences, is a fiction. So, though this film is historically of great interest and stimulation to one’s further investigations of the writing of Citizen Kane, and to the era in general, it’s not to be taken at face value. (Check out Everything You Need to Know About Old Hollywood to Understand Mank or Mank: History vs. Hollywood for some further sense about fiction vs. fact in the film.)
The film makes much of Mank’s political interests and casts him as a left-leaning sympathizer for Upton Sinclair’s candidacy. Following that up via a series of flashbacks, the film then sets the stage for Mank’s excoriation of the Charles Foster Kane character so closely modeled on that of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. In Citizen Kane, Heart’s simulacrum is posed as a power-hungry and ultimately desperate tycoon who manipulates the life and career of his much younger actress wife, modeled on the real-life wife of Hearst, Marion Davies. The suggestion of the flashbacks is that Mank’s recoiling at Hearst’s political opposition to Sinclair’s campaign caused Mank to write the script he did. In fact, Mank’s own political leanings, only hazily alluded to in the film, were much more ambiguous. In the film, his hesitation to support the establishment of the Screen Actors Guild is one of few clues that Mank’s political temper was complex. But the film makes the hints so hesitant that it’s difficult to get the complexity it intends to portray.
Gary Oldman is cast as Mank, which is a mistake. Oldman is a fine actor indeed, and did an absolutely superb job as Winston Churchill in the recent Darkest Hour (2017). he can indeed embody complex characters, but, in this casting, he is asked to portray a witty, though dissolute, Jewish screenwriter and it just does not fit. The dissolution comes across fine, but the witty part far less so. Given the portrayal, one has no idea why Louis B. Mayer, Orson Welles, or anyone else would be so thrilled to work with Mank.
One role that does work well is Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of Marion Davies. She’s depicted as a siren, but as an intelligent and savvy one. One gets where the characterization of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane comes from, but the character in Citizen Kane is a floozy and a dimwit, whereas Seyfried’s Marion Davies is astute and with it.
As well, Lily Collins’ portrayal of Rita Alexander, Mank’s secretary, is compelling. She’s a standard fill-in character in some way, though indeed based in fact, but Collins carries the role elegantly and eloquently. Her conversion regarding support for Mank’s desire to drink during the writing process – despite Orson Welles’ efforts to keep him from doing so – is nicely developed.
Charles Dance, a favorite since The Jewel in the Crown (1984) days, plays Hearst, and offers a commanding presence, though, unfortunately, he is given less to do onscreen than he might have been.
Arliss Howard plays a nasty and fussy Louis B. Mayer, but who conveys adeptly Mayer’s sleaziness especially in a scene in which Mayer slitheringly shifts character to appeal to MGM employees to take a pay cut.
The character of Fraulein Freda (Monika Gossmann), Mank’s housemaid, is kind of silly. Though her eventually delivered account gives moral weight to Mank and to his desire to drink, she is cast in a weird way. Mank did indeed help a group of Eastern Europeans – presumably Jews – to escape, and this character, portrayed as one of them seems not Jewish at all but more like a German hausfrau. It’s an odd cinematic move, especially in this era, somewhat reminiscent of the avoidance of mentioning Jews in Casablanca (1942), a film about European refugees, by identifying the obvious Jewish refugee characters as Bulgarians.
Casting and direction of the roles Mankiewicz, his wife, and the largely Jewish coterie of Hollywood characters including Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, is culturally unconvincing. One almost cringes to hear Oldman and Tuppence Middleton, a British actress who plays his wife, Sara, exchange Yiddishisms. It just doesn’t work. (That being said, there are certainly non-Jews who play Jews convincingly in all kinds of roles. Rachel Brosnahan as Midge Maisel, or Tony Shalhoub as her father, in Amazon Prime’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-) are compelling and believable.)
The production values, in general, are very good. The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is gripping and varied, noir-ish in its moments on the ranch and the more frivolous in the flashbacks to Hollywood in the thirties. Cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt and lighting are beautifully done, as is film editing by Kirk Baxter. In sum, all the subsidiary ways Fincher pulls the film together have a great deal of merit. But the shortcomings of the script and the casting, and associated limitations on directing some of those unfortunately cast, throws a shadow on things.
Even so, that David Fincher made his Dad’s script into a film is a touching tribute. Maybe David Fincher did not want to mess with his father’s writing too much and felt it would be more of an honor to his father’s memory to leave it alone. Who knows? In the end, the film is interesting rather than great, but certainly worth the time, though it’s long at two and a quarter hours, as a stimulus to learning about the era and the making of a great film.
In the end, as Mank portrays him, Orson Welles does not come off so well. Apparently, he thought he could get Mank to write the script and not give him scriptwriting credit. There seemed to have been an agreement to that effect, but Mank did want credit in the end. In fact, the dispute did cause a big fight between the two men, who ultimately shared screenwriting credits and won the Academy Award for best screenplay that year. As much as demonstrating the creation of a script about a monomaniac, Mank is, as well, a film that depicts a young director whose ego turns out to be larger than it might have been.
– BADMan (aka Charles Munitz)