mank review

“It isn’t enough to tell us what a man did. You’ve got to tell us who he was.” – Citizen Kane

Herman J. Mankiewicz, genius Hollywood screenwriter, has been sent away to Arizona. Broken – his leg is in a thick cast following a car accident – and eager to get drunk at the drop of a hat, Mank – as everyone calls him – has been tasked with hammering out a screenplay for Hollywood’s new golden boy, Orson Welles. And Mank has a whopper of an idea: he’s going to write about newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, one of the most powerful men in the country. It’s a subject Mank is well-versed in, having spent countless nights drunkenly cavorting at Hearst’s castle-like estate San Simeon. Mank knows Hearst. Knows the people in Hearst’s inner-circle. And with his clacking typewriter, he’s going to destroy them all – and possibly himself, in the process.

The first thing you notice about David Fincher‘s Mank is the sound, and I don’t just mean Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross‘ swooning score. The audio here is not what you’re used to hearing from a Netflix movie, or a modern movie in general. It’s warm, but also booming. It doesn’t sound overdubbed, or even out-of-place. But it sounds like the type of audio you’d hear were you watching Mank in some grand movie palace. You can imagine yourself sitting in a plush, somewhat stiff theater chair, the screen looming above you, tall shadows shimmering across stone walls. Fincher even includes cue marks – aka cigarette burns – to imply that some unseen projectionist is about to change reels. This is a film that transports you back in time.

Time travel is baked into Mank, in a way, as the narrative keeps jumping back and forth to Mank’s days pounding away at a screenplay that will one day become Citizen Kane and his early, glory days in Hollywood. Fincher transports us to these various places and times by having scene headings appear on-screen – EXT. STUDIO LOT – DAY (FLASHBACK), etc. In those flashbacks, Mank is in high-demand – a big shot screenwriter at MGM working with a pool of other writers who seem to mostly sit around in smoky offices, hats tilted back on their heads, newspapers sprawled open in their laps. Occasionally, they get called into a meeting to hash out the script for the next big thing. They bullshit their way through it, cribbing ideas from other productions and adding just the right amount of flare to make the pitch seem fresh and original. So it goes. It’s the Hollywood way.

The Depression is roaring, and studio boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) wants everyone to take a pay cut. He tries to frame it as a positive thing – he’d rather pay everyone less than have to fire everyone, you understand. But there’s a solution on the horizon to everyone’s problems. Upton Sinclair, the muckraking journalist, is running for Governor of California. Sinclair is a socialist, and to people like Mayer (and William Randolph Hearst), such a distinction screams “COMMUNIST” in big, red letters.

What’s Tinseltown to do? Make movies, of course. After Mank casually tosses off the idea to Mayer’s partner Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) that motion pictures could be used to crush Sinclair’s candidacy, Thalberg does just that. He recruits a budding filmmaker to start creating negative newsreel ads against Sinclair. Newsreels in which out-of-work extras pose as Soviets straight from Mother Russia, ready to sing the praises of Comrade Sinclair. Newsreels where crusty hobos come crawling off boxcars like insects scattering at light, claiming to be drawn to California by Sinclair’s socialist ideas. The message is clear: if California elects Sinclair, California will go straight to hell.

And it works. Sinclair loses, and loses big (historical spoiler alert). But Mank actually likes Sinclair. Likes what he stands for. And when it dawns on him that his own loud mouth helped bring down his preferred candidate, it just doesn’t sit right. It awakens something in the drunken screenwriter. Now, burdened with a conscience, Mank decides to do what he does best – write. He’s been partnered with Hollywood’s next big thing, Orson Welles, played with just the right amount of pomposity by Tom Burke.

Thalberg may have been the one who put the dirty tricks against Sinclair in play, but Mank knows it was really Hearst (Charles Dance, stately as ever) who really bankrolled the idea. And Mank wants…what? Justice? Revenge? These are murky waters, and Mank doesn’t just wade into them – he goes stumbling in, soaking himself in the process.

Because Mank has a serious problem. Not only is Hearst so powerful that he could have Mank crushed, but Hearst’s inner circle is also, by extent, Mank’s inner circle. Mank is cozy with Hearst’s mistress, actress Marion Davies, played with just the right mix of ditziness and secret smarts by a glowing Amanda Seyfried. Into Mank’s script goes a ditzy actress, mistress to Hearst stand-in Charles Foster Kane. Mank swears up and down that the character isn’t based on Marion. He even says so to her face. But both of them give each other a sly, knowing smile. Mank can pontificate all he wants on how the character in his script is a composite character. But deep down, both of them know the truth.

Marion may be agreeable to her fictional counterpart, but the same can’t be said for Hearst, or for the people who cling to Hearst like boozy barnacles; a gaggle of garish, intoxicated ghosts haunting the towering halls of San Simeon. By writing this script, Mank is not only about to alienate some powerful people – he’s also about to destroy his career. But it also might just be the best thing he’s ever going to write.

In the script, penned by Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher, bridges are worth burning for the sake of good art. Sure, you can dress it up under the pretense of doing the right thing; of Mank righting a wrong he accidentally created; of Mank taking a political stand. But does he really believe that? Or is this just the script he’s been waiting his whole life to write? The big brick of text (the first draft is 327 pages) that will be associated with his name forever – provided he can convince Welles to give him a screenwriting credit?

Gary Oldman is the man anchoring all of this, and as is usually the case with the actor, he grabs hold of the role and shakes the life out of it. The character is in an almost constant state of drunkenness, which allows Oldman plenty of room to play and garner both laughs and pity. We’re amused when Mank gets a little tipsy, and then we’re alarmed where he gets so fall-down drunk that it looks like he’s going to hurt himself. He’s backed up by a game supporting cast, but it can’t be denied that Tuppence Middleton, as Mank’s long-suffering wife Sara, and Lily Collins, as Mank’s secretary Rita, are underserved in underwritten roles. Collins has a bit more to do, but not by much.

At first blush, Mank isn’t your typical David Fincher flick. Yes, it’s gorgeously mounted and meticulously crafted. But it doesn’t feel like Fincher’s other movies. And yet, when you look closer…it does. Because like all great Fincher films, Mank is about obsession. The obsession with getting something right. The obsession with creating good art. The obsessions with being remembered long after the whole world has faded to black.

The script is punchy and not afraid to lean into melodrama, and Fincher is clearly having fun bringing his father’s words to life. Much of the story here feels lifted from film critic Pauline Kael’s controversial “Raising Kane” essay, which lays all the work of Kane at Mankiewicz’s feet and cuts Welles out of the equation. Several notable people have discredited the essay’s claims, but no matter – it makes for a cracking good yarn. And a great movie. It’s the stuff that dreams are made of, to quote another old Hollywood story from 1941.

/Film rating: 9 out of 10

Cool Posts From Around the Web:

About the Author

Chris Evangelista is a staff writer and critic for /Film, and the host of the 21st Century Spielberg podcast. Follow him on Twitter @cevangelista413 or email him at chris@chrisevangelista.net