As if the prospect of a movie about the genesis of Citizen Kane directed by David Fincher weren’t intriguing enough on its own, the clash of disparate early reviews can only crank up the anticipation. Mank, Fincher’s first feature since Gone Girl (2014), is either “a miracle” (the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin) or “an unsuccessful stylistic hybrid,” a “Frankenstein monster that never gets out of the lab” (Jason Bailey at the Playlist). It’s either “Fincher’s most playful work” (Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com) or “markedly, the least-enjoyable film he’s ever directed” (Nick Newman at the Film Stage). And it opens in a few theaters on Friday before Netflix begins streaming it on December 4.
Mank is Herman J. Mankiewicz, the New York reporter, theater critic, and Algonquin Round Table regular who headed out to Hollywood in the late 1920s—early days for the era of talking pictures—to write and doctor screenplays. Not long after his arrival, Paramount put Mank in charge of writer recruitment. “Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots,” wrote Mank in a telegram to Ben Hecht. “Don’t let this get around.” Mankiewicz was known for his quick wit but also for his debilitating penchants for alcohol and gambling, and his career was beginning to flounder when he was approached in 1939 by Orson Welles, the boy wonder of theater and radio who had just landed a contract with RKO that would allow him to write, produce, and direct just about anything he pleased.
Like Mankiewicz, Jack Fincher, David’s father, was a journalist who decided to try his hand at screenwriting, and he wrote the first draft of Mank around thirty years ago. Even after rewrites by David Fincher and Eric Roth (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), Mank is “manifestly a work of fact-extrapolated fiction,” and “that can’t be emphasized enough,” writes Glenn Kenny. Mank doesn’t necessarily embrace but it does at least lean into the argument that Pauline Kael laid out in a book-length essay that ran in the New Yorker in two parts in 1971. “Raising Kane” stipulates that, while Welles was eager to take credit for writing Citizen Kane, the screenplay is primarily if not solely the work of Herman J. Mankiewicz.
In the new issue of Sight & Sound,Farran Smith Nehme points out that scholars, historians, and critics such as Robert Carringer, Harlan Lebo, Joseph McBride, and Jonathan Rosenbaum have since convincingly taken Kael’s case apart. As Todd McCarthy puts it at Deadline, over “the past four decades or so,” the “general view has been that Mankiewicz did the heavy lifting of the initial drafts, characterization, and dialogue, while Welles, once the project proceeded, reshaped, rewrote, transposed, added, eliminated, and in all ways tailored the script to his ultimate liking.”
To further the point, Chuck Bowen writes at Slant that “Mankiewicz’s acerbic wit is very alive in Citizen Kane, but so is Welles’s beautiful brio—his formal flourishes and innate instinct for lacing a punchline with ironic tragedy.” And talking to Mark Harris at Vulture, Fincher himself says that any screenplay is “the egg, and it needs a donor to create the cellular split that moves it into the realm of something playable in three dimensions and recordable in two dimensions and presentable to other people.”
Like Kane,Mank begins with a bedridden protagonist, anchoring the present moment in the world of each film—1940 in the case of Mank—from which we’ll be heading into a series of flashbacks. While Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) recovers from a broken leg and other injuries suffered in a car accident, Welles (Tom Burke) has set him up in a ranch house in Victorville, a desert town just over eighty miles northeast of Los Angeles. Secretary Rita Alexander (Rita Collins) and Welles collaborator John Houseman (Sam Troughton) are to ensure that Mank carries on writing and lays off the booze.
One of the many questions Mank seeks to address is just why it is that Mankiewicz and Welles went so hard in Citizen Kane after media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). The Finchers’ answer is that Mank was infuriated when Hearst teamed up with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) to derail the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of left-leaning, muck-raking novelist Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye the Science Guy). While partying at Hearst’s ranch at San Simeon, Mank is treated to what the Los Angeles Times’ Justin Chang calls “a dispiriting front-row view of the ruthless operations of power—especially political power—in a film industry that, for all its much-vaunted liberalism today, is shown to be deeply in thrall to the Republican Party of the ’30s.”
But it’s also at San Simeon that Mank strikes up a platonic friendship with Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). “In an odd way,” writes Robbie Collin, “Marion and Mank are kindred spirits, both living a gilded dream-existence in which neither one feels truly at home, but which they can’t bring themselves to relinquish. And while there is no shortage of barnstorming monologues from Oldman, Howard, and Dance, it’s Seyfried’s tender, heartsore soliloquies that give the film its lingering ache.”
For Time’s Stephanie Zacharek,Mank is “a movie made with care and cunning and peopled by actors who know exactly what they’re doing. Oldman makes a terrific Mankiewicz, sizing up the world around him as if it were all a comic mirage and he were the only real thing in it.” And for Farran Smith Nehme, Seyfried “makes Davies as lovable as her contemporaries claimed she was, and Mank shows her being sacrificed to Herman Mankiewicz’s unusually naive assumption that people would realize the differences between the talented Marion and Charles Foster Kane’s talentless lover Susan.”
Mank is shot in digital widescreen black and white by Erik Messerschmidt, the cinematographer Fincher has been working with on his Netflix series, Mindhunter. They’ve added artificial reel-change circles, a few scruffs and scratches, and the analog sound is in scrunchy mono. “Mank is a stubbornly glorious work of inside baseball, with appearances by the likes of Josef von Sternberg (Paul Fox), Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms), Charles MacArthur (John Churchill), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), and Mank’s younger brother, Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey),” notes Chuck Bowen. It’s a film “more steeped in Old Hollywood—its glamour and sleaze, its layer-cake hierarchies, its corruption and glory—than just about any movie you’ve seen, and the effect is to lend it a dizzying time-machine splendor,” writes Variety’s Owen Gleiberman.
At the A.V. Club, though, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky finds that Mank is “both a catalog of Fincherisms and a very atypical work—a feature-length excuse for the master stylist of minutiae to clown on his usual hyperrealism by indulging in all of his favorite movie-movie affectations. The parading of influences via cameo, name-check, and homage goes far beyond the Kane-mania that was already obvious in the The Social Network. But while Mank succeeds on certain personal terms, it fails by largely conventional means. There are parts that bear an uncanny resemblance to the kind of awards-bait middlebrow drama usually essayed by BBC-trained hacks.”
But for Glenn Kenny, “when the movie swings, it brings you with it. A walk and talk between Herman and Hearst at their introduction to each other happens while Hearst is traveling on a gigantic camera dolly, overseeing a Davies picture. The staging, shooting, and editing here represent Fincher at his most inspired, creating an undercurrent of exhilaration even as we are aware that we’re witnessing crummy people doing crummy things.”
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