While I’m no film school nerd, I have watched Citizen Kane several times over the past twenty-five years, and have read several articles on the making of the movie over that time as well. I’ve also been watching David Fincher’s films since the early nineties. And while some (Se7en, Zodiac, The Social Network) are better than others (Alien 3, Panic Room, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button), his movies always warrant at least one viewing. When I read about Mank, I thought the movie could be a great one. Fincher is one of the best directors of his generation, and he’s making a movie about the making of one of my favorite movies. The resulting movie is not among Fincher’s greatest, placing solidly at the top of the middle-tier films he’s made.
As a movie that strives for an obsessive recreation of the Hollywood studio era of the nineteen thirties, it succeeds tremendously. Fincher’s attention to detail is unparalleled here. Filled with fancy cars, flashing cameras, men wearing hats and smoking everywhere, Mank is probably as close to a modern recreation of the era it depicts as we are ever likely to see. In a way, it follows in the footsteps as last year’s Once Upon a Time…In Hollywood. I can easily see Mank winning several technical Oscars, including set design, costume and cinematography.
As a movie that tells the story of Herman Mankawicz, the co-author of the screenplay for Citizen Kane, success is muted at best. Mank is very “inside baseball”. Unless you have background knowledge of Citizen Kane and how it was made, you probably won’t be able to be fully engaged by the story presented by the movie. Mank relies on your knowledge of figures from Hollywood’s distant past, like Louis Mayer, Irving Thalberg, William Hurst, Marian Davies, Upton Sinclair, which many younger movie aficionados probably know nothing about. (I’m not so young myself, and I barely know anything about them.) Critics of Fincher usually describe his directorial style as clinical. I would agree with that, but his movies and television shows are filled with wry wit and tension. Mank definitely has wit to spare, but tension is nonexistent.
In Mank, Herman Mankawicz (Gary Oldman) is an interesting character, but not a compelling one. He’s shown to be a compulsive gambler and a heavy drinker. His best days are seemingly behind him, but whether his bad habits are the cause or the effect, Mank never makes that clear. Several characters remark on Herman being a genius, but we are never shown how he earned that reputation. (I am growing weary of movies and television masquerading as homework assignments. It would have not taken long to provide a quick montage, or even a scroll after the titles, summarizing the significant achievements in Herman’s life.)
Herman has a sharp wit, has a wide knowledge of literary subjects and is able to tap dance in front of studio executives. Overall, I found Herman to be a squishy character. He’s content to live off of his reputation and not really contribute anything beyond recruiting talent from New York. He sees a lot of crass and hypocritical behavior from the powers that be (at MGM primarily), but he says nothing about it (until it’s too late). Herman is, by his own admission, washed up at 44. He is a friendly drunk with no awareness of his own self-destructive behavior. The version of Herman in Mank is just not that interesting to watch on screen for two hours.
While writing the screenplay, Herman is holed-up at a ranch in Victorville, far away from civilization in general and Hollywood specifically. An automobile accident has left him physically incapacitated. He accepts Orson Welles’s offer to write a screenplay while recuperating in the hospital. Herman spends most of the time at the ranch lying in bed, writing on a notepad and drinking. Gary Oldman tries his best, but those scenes just aren’t captivating. The supporting characters around Herman aren’t fleshed out much beyond simple broad strokes. They come off as genial but superficial portrayals of the real people involved. Lily Collins plays Rita Alexander, a secretary, who encourages or gently reprimands Herman as needed, but her character makes only a modest impression. Caretaker Fraulein Freda has a few lines about how Herman is a good man, and then fades into the background. Everyone refers to Herman’s wife as “Poor Sara”, but we don’t learn much about her beyond the fact that she’s a dutiful wife who loves Herman’s in spite of his bad habits and being an absentee father and husband. John Housman shows up periodically, played by Sam Troughton as overly flustered and nervous, which is how I never would have thought to describe the actual person. Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies leaves the best impression, coming across as a flesh-and-blood person and not a glorified cameo.
The problem with Mank is that the most interesting character in the story, Orson Welles, is relegated to a few brief scenes. RKO 821, a movie about the same subject matter from HBO back in 1999, understood that Herman is only a supporting character in the story of how Citizen Kane got made. Herman’s life was an interesting one, and his role in bringing Citizen Kane to life cannot be underestimated. But Herman’s work was only one part of the overall effort that went into making the movie. From the cinematography (Gregg Toland), to the editing (Ray Wise), to the score (Bernard Herrmann) as well as the acting (Orson Welles, Joseph Cotten, Agnes Moorehead), many of those involved gave their best to make the movie what it is, which is still one of the best (if not the best) movies ever made.
Welles contribution to his own film can’t be overlooked. Welles is the larger than life character in the making of Citizen Kane that compels interest from the audience. That most people focus solely on Welles at the expense of Herman may be unfair, but Welles did produce, direct and star in the movie. He also whittled down Mank’s original 325 page first draft into something that could be filmed.
The story structure in Mank flips backwards and forwards in time between 1934 and 1940, in an attempt to create mystery as to why Herman decided to write a screenplay about Hurst. Fincher spends so much energy filming scenes in the manor of Citizen Kane that it feels like a shallow copy of the movie. I don’t understand why Fincher didn’t go all-in and replicate Kane’s narrative structure, with having multiple people discuss Herman’s life from their point of view. That would have been far more compelling than ping-ponging back and forth between just a brief period of Herman’s life.
I think the limited scope of the movie is the source of its dramatic problems. I would have been interested in seeing a movie version about Herman’s life, not just a select period from it. Even though Herman died at 55, I felt like there was a lot more of his life’s story that I would have liked to have seen. Citizen Kane may have been the crowning achievement in Herman’s life, but it was only a small part of it.
The storyline of Mank felt familiar to me. Herman’s growing acknowledgement of MGM and Hurst’s involvement in torpedoing Upton Sinclair’s run for California Governor felt reminiscent of Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, where Nick Carraway mostly overlooks Gatsby’s shady origins in order to be a hangers-on in good standing. (West’s The Day of the Locust, did a better job of casting a jaundiced eye at Hollywood in the 1930’s. )
Ultimately, I found Mank to be interesting, but not engrossing. Those who watch this movie will likely already be familiar with the backstory of Citizen Kane. (The end of the movie contains a scene that purportedly shows how the seed for the screenplay was planted in Herman’s mind, but I found that revelation as modest at best.) At best, Mank brings Herman Mankowicz, one of the key players in Citizen Kane to life, and spares no expense in recreating the time and place that led to its creation. Unfortunately, Mank fails to capture the spirit and energy of the resulting movie Herman created. There are worse things in life than falling short when compared to Citizen Kane. When you square off against a giant, you typically come up short. Fincher can take some pride in that, I suppose.