“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” That’s a valuable piece of screenwriting advice offered up by legendary movie writer Herman J. Mankiewicz in “Mank,” but it’s also the film lowering the bar for itself – impressions of people and incidents are all that this immaculately produced and beautifully acted film ultimately has to offer.
In telling the story of the creation of the original screenplay for what would become “Citizen Kane,” one of the true masterpieces of American cinema, director David Fincher (working from a screenplay by his late father Jack Fincher) frames the film as the story of a career-dead, alcoholic Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) drumming out one final script partially to fulfill a contract with Orson Welles’ Mercury Theatre but mainly to settle an old grudge against former benefactor William Randolph Hearst.
From its old-school scrolling opening credits to its voluptous black-and-white cinematography (by Erik Messerschmidt, who collaborated with Fincher on the Netflix series “Mindhunter”), “Mank” will be catnip for devotees of Turner Classic Movies, a network that currently employs Herman’s grandson Ben (full disclosure: He’s a friend and colleague) as an on-air host.
But starry-eyed fans of American cinema’s golden age who shunned “Scotty and the Secret History of Hollywood” because they didn’t want to know about the sex lives of their favorite leading men and ladies, and who avoided “Trumbo” because they didn’t want to be reminded that the studios aided and abetted the Blacklist, will have to deal with the Finchers’ evocation of the deeply reactionary politics of the moguls that created the movie business.
Like “Kane” itself, “Mank” jumps around in time and space, from the Vacaville bungalow where Mank, out of favor with the studios, pounded out the “Kane” script with the help of hard-working assistant Mrs. Alexander (Lily Collins), back to the 1930s, when he ruled a roost of legendary Paramount writers (including George S. Kaufman, S.J. Perelman, and Ben Hecht) and rubbed elbows with the likes of super-producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley, “Victoria”) and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), mistress of the wealthy and powerful newspaper magnate Hearst (Charles Dance).
Novelist Upton Sinclair is only ever seen at a distance in “Mank,” but he becomes a key figure in the story, as his campaign for California governor, running a Socialist platform on the Democratic ticket, becomes vexing to the likes of Hearst, Thalberg, and MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). The lengths that these men will go to to bring down Sinclair — using the myth-making magic of Hollywood, no less — rattles Mank from being an arch observer to becoming more directly engaged, only to discover that any devastating truths he can hurl at these powerful men will be met with equally devastating ones being thrown back at him.
Fincher is clearly in love with this era of filmmaking, from the studio offices of yore to the reel-change burn-ins he digitally adds to this Netflix production. (He previously spotlighted those dots in “Fight Club.”) The swooping camera, and the upbeat score by frequent collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, evoke the zippiness of 1930s Hollywood, and only occasionally (a low angle here, a spotlight facing the camera there) does he visually paraphrase “Citizen Kane.”
He’s perhaps pushing it with the type-written, on-screen explanations of time and place that read like screenplay stage directions (“EXT. PARAMOUNT STUDIOS – 1933 – (FLASHBACK),” for example), but the device never grows insufferable. If nothing else, this movie’s clear-eyed evocation of how things were, rather than how one might have wished they were, feels like a balm after Ryan Murphy’s ludicrous fanfic miniseries “Hollywood.”
With such fascinating players, and such a juicy intersection of studio politics and politics-politics, why does “Mank,” when all is said and done, somehow feel so inert? Is it because the Finchers feel the need to dredge up the old “Who really wrote ‘Citizen Kane’?” debate that Pauline Kael launched decades ago? (Even if Welles never wrote a single word of it, screenplays are — with very few exceptions — remembered because the final product was memorable, and the accomplishments of “Citizen Kane” begin but certainly do not end with what’s on the page.)
Or is it because the film presents the writing of “Citizen Kane” less as a creative endeavor and more as an elaborate form of revenge? To the film’s credit, writing is an inherently un-cinematic activity, and “Mank” wisely avoids the usual clichés in this department. Jack Fincher also manages to create wonderful moments of dialogue between Mank and Davies, or Mank and Hearst, that never include lines that would later wind up coming out of Charles Foster Kane’s mouth. As opposed to, say, “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” which reduces Dickens to a stenographer writing down everyone else’s bons mots, Mank reaches understanding and even empathy with his subjects without merely quoting them.
And they are, as the film lets us get to know them, interesting and complex people, particularly Seyfried’s Marion Davies, a woman genuinely in love with her benefactor; she’s retained enough of the Catholic schoolgirl to blush at certain double entendres, and to refuse to tell a lie, but not so much that she can’t have a long-running adulterous affair with a married man. After the “Kane” script is done, Mank keeps insisting that the feckless Susan Alexander character isn’t based on Davies, but rather on the public perception of her, and Seyfried’s performance is a lovely testament to the role’s inspiration, a woman who was by all accounts charming, funny, and intelligent.
Oldman’s Mank, however, feels like more of a mystery, even though Oldman is giving one of his more engaging performances in recent memory. Herman is written as such a quip-for-any-occasion wit that one might mistake him for a character in his brother Joseph’s later hit “All About Eve.” We are mostly left to understand him via the descriptions of others, most notably his wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton, wonderful and underutilized).
Memorable acting, striking cinematography, and a provocative examination of the nexus between entertainment and media and politics — that’s part of what’s kept the legend of “Citizen Kane” alive for decades, and it’s enough to make “Mank” necessary, if not entirely fulfilling, viewing for film lovers.
“Mank” will stream on Netflix Nov. 20.