As I watched David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, my main feeling was one of wanting to like the film more than I actually did.
I mean, really, the film sounds like it was specifically made to appeal to me. It’s a film about the Golden Age of Hollywood, which is an era that has always fascinated me as both a film lover and history nerd. Even more specifically, it’s a film about the writing of Citizen Kane, which is one of my favorite movies. (On one of our first dates, Jeff and I snuck into a showing of Citizen Kane at the Magnolia. The crime was fun and finally getting to see the movie on the big screen was even better.) It’s a film that features a host of historical figures, everyone from Louis B. Mayer to Irving Thalberg to Orson Welles to William Randolph Hearst to Marion Davies to the title character himself, the self-destructive screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz.
Those historical figures are played by a truly impressive collection of actors, almost all of whom give memorable performances. Gary Oldman plays Mankiewicz, lurching about Hollywood in a drunken haze and calling out the system while, somewhat hypocritically, also attempting to profit from it. Charles Dance is compellingly arrogant as William Randolph Hearst. Tom Burke captures Orson Welles’s trademark voice and charisma, making an impression despite having surprisingly little screen time. Ferdinand Kingsley plays Irving Thalberg and steals nearly every scene in which he appears. Arliss Howard is a marvel as the manipulate Mayer while Amanda Seyfried gives the best performance of her career so far as Marion Davies. The film portrays Davies as being intelligent, witty, and perhaps the only truly honest person in Hollywood. If it can be argued that Citizen Kane robbed Davies of her dignity, it can also be argued that Mank makes a sincere attempt to give it back to her. With the exception of a distracting cameo from Bill Nye (yes, the science guy), Mank is perfectly cast.
And yet, despite all of that, the film never really engaged me on either an emotional or an intellectual level. The black-and-white cinematography is gorgeous but the film plods from one incident to another, skipping back and forth in time and trying to convince us that Herman J. Mankiewicz was a more fascinating figure than he comes across as being. For the most part, Mankiewicz comes across as being a bit of a bore and the film makes the classic mistake of assuming that we’ll naturally like him just because he’s the main character. Gary Oldman is as charismatic as ever but the film doesn’t give him much of character to play. Mankiewicz stumbles from scene to scene, searching for a drink and always complaining about one thing or another. A little bit of Herman J. Mankiewicz goes a long way and, once it becomes apparent that he’s going to spend the entire film perpetually annoyed, Mankiewicz becomes a rather uninteresting character. Long before this film even reached the halfway mark, I was on the side of everyone who wanted Mankiewicz to stop talking and just finish writing the damn script.
If you’re one of the ten or so people who is still outraged over the failure of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign, you’ll probably enjoy this film. For those of you haven’t read Greg Mitchell’s The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics, Upton Sinclair was a writer and longtime socialist activist who won the 1934 Democratic nomination to run for governor of California. Despite garnering a lot of national attention with his End Poverty In California (EPIC) platform, Sincliar was overwhelmingly defeated by Republican Frank Merriam. Mank argues that Sinclair’s defeat was largely due to dirty tricks and negative campaigning, most of it masterminded by Mayer and Hearst. Mankiewicz is a Sinclair supporter who is angered by the underhanded efforts of Mayer and Hearst. The script for Citizen Kane is, at least partially, Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst and Mayer for working against Sinclair and it’s something that Mankiewicz feels so strongly about that he’s willing to demand that Orson Welles give him credit for his work on the screenplay. It’s a legitimate theory, but the film’s exploration of it feels rather shallow and intellectually lazy. Just as it did with the character of Mankiewicz, the film makes the mistake of assuming the audiences will automatically find the candidacy of Upton Sinclair to be as inspiring as the film does. The film continually insists that we should care but, when it finally has a chance to show us why Upton Sinclair’s campaign was important, all it can provide is Bill Nye The Science Guy, standing on a platform and complaining about religious hypocrisy. It’s the cinematic equivalent of a casual acquaintance demanding to know why his twitter feed didn’t convince you to vote for Bernie Sanders.
From a historical point of view, the film does itself no favors by creating a fictional friend of Mankiewicz’s, one who is so consumed with guilt over his part in defeating Upton Sinclair that he ends up committing suicide. It feels rather cheap and predictable, an easy way to give Mankiewicz some sort of motivation beyond being infatuated with Marion Davies. Historically, the truth of the matter is that Frank Merriam turned to the left as soon as he was elected and Upton Sinclair went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for writing a series of now-unreadable books about an international do-gooder named Lanny Budd. Meanwhile, director Felix E. Feist (who was responsible for shooting many of the anti-Sinclair newsreels that MGM released into cinemas) went on to have a very long career and never indicated that he felt any guilty for playing a part in Sinclair’s defeat.
Like many of David Fincher’s film, Mank works best as an exercise in style. The black-and-white cinematography is to die for. Some of the shots — especially early in the film — are breathtaking. Mankiewicz may spend the majority of the film railing against the excesses of Hollywood but, visually, Fincher can’t get enough of them. Indeed, much as with The Social Network, Fincher seems to be spend the majority of the film at odds with the the film’s overwritten and rather pompous script. (Of course, Mank was written by Fincher’s late father while The Social Network was written by Aaron Sorkin. While there’s a lot to criticize about Jack Fincher’s script, one can still be thankful that he wrote the script instead of Sorkin. One can only imagine how Marion Davies would have been portrayed if Aaron Sorkin had been involved.) Mank is narratively deficient but visually stunning. The film’s script rather snarkily dismisses Orson Welles as being a mere “showman” but, as film, Mank proves that sometimes a showman is exactly what’s needed.