Alcoholic Screenwriter Writes ‘Citizen Kane’ in ‘Mank’

David Fincher’s love (and mild disdain) letter to the magic of Hollywood.

There isn’t a badly composed frame in David Fincher’s Mank. Shot in deep, crepuscular blacks and luminous grays and whites, the filmmaker’s command of visual techniques is formidable. His camera holds a closeup on an actor’s face in turmoil with as much precision as it does a long shot of diners drinking goblets of wine at a banquet table. Mank is an admirable master class in directing, but emotionally uninvolving. It is an extended intellectual exercise studying the main character’s modus operandi — Do as I say, not as I do.

It’s also a Hollywood film about Hollywood, fitting neatly into a long tradition of insular stories that assumes the audience shares the movie industry’s intense obsession with itself. This well-travelled territory has been definitively and darkly told and retold again in films like David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2001) and David Cronenberg’s Maps to the Stars (2014). Southern California itself, satirized in movies like Paul Mazursky’s Down and Out in Beverly Hills (1986) and Michael Tolkin’s The New Age (1994), can’t withstand the corrosive force of Hollywood’s cultural influencers. Tinseltown invades the psychic life of the entire region.  

Fincher’s known for disturbing us with movies like Seven (1995), Fight Club (1999) and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011). But in comparison with his previous films, Mank is a tamer, less visceral creation. Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the screenwriter who wrote Citizen Kane (1941), has as many antagonists as Jack Nicholson’s Jake Gittes does in Chinatown (1974). And, like Gittes, Mank slowly discovers that he’s out of his depth when he’s confronted with men who wield actual power in the real world.

The director wants this ambitious movie to be a lasting achievement, to rival Roman Polanski’s as a quintessential film noir vision of Los Angeles. While the cinematography is stunning, the overall tone ends up like a bleaker, more caustic version of Ethan and Joel Coen’s Hail, Caesar! (2016). Mank contends with moral dilemmas, but they don’t carry as much weight as the ones in Chinatown. The script is full of smart observations, and witty ones, but Mank’s moral rot is on a par with every other villain who appears on screen. We’re meant to sympathize with the least bad man playing for a team of greedy, ruthless hypocrites.     

As Mank, Oldman is expressive and committed to staying in character. It’s a confident performance delivered by a leading man who’s already won an Academy Award. Oldman is flamboyant enough to garner another nomination but he doesn’t have anything new to play as an alcoholic writer. If you’ve seen one drunk on screen, you’ve seen them all. When he asks his beleaguered wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) why she puts up with it all, she never comes up with a plausible answer — not for him or for those of us watching his shenanigans. Mank’s charms wear out quickly. 

The supporting cast easily sidesteps Oldman’s long shadow. Arliss Howard is unrecognizable as an unctuous Louis B. Mayer. He demonstrates the Hollywood producer’s stature by remaining aloof, cold, and dismissive as an emperor. Howard gets two great monologues that reveal the character’s heart of darkness. As William Randolph Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, Amanda Seyfried is the most engaged she’s been since her role on HBO’s Big Love. She’s inspired here as a smart blond, playing dumb for the men who hover around her.  

Mank’s many subplots include but are not limited to: the barely addressed battle of wills between Orson Welles and Mankiewicz over the Citizen Kane script, Mank’s assistant’s missing husband and his German nurse’s backstory, Mank’s brother’s Hollywood career, and, the derailing of Upton Sinclair’s campaign for Governor of California. Several scenes are told in flashbacks. But because this is a movie about a screenwriter, Fincher “types” the script’s settings on screen to orient any disoriented viewers.  

Fincher’s film is the ultimate follow-up to Pauline Kael’s 1971 essay “Raising Kane.” The origin story of Citizen Kane is a compelling subject for film critics and film directors. In both cases, Kael and Fincher want to give credit where credit is due. Mank stands as a corrective to the mythology that Welles was a solitary wunderkind. It’s meaningful for Hollywood professionals to see their names writ large in neon lights. But almost everyone I know leaves the theater or turns off their television when the credits start to roll.

Mank is now playing at the Embarcadero Center Cinema and the Smith Rafael Film Center. The film starts streaming December 4 on Netflix.

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