There’s this (not entirely unfounded) belief that Hollywood makes movies about Hollywood because they’ve crawled so far up their own ass that they absolutely need to celebrate themselves. It’s why any remotely decent movie (and also Bohemian Rhapsody) about show business is a shoo-in for awards season, even if they temper their traditionalism with sex scenes between a woman and a fish-man. The most charitable take on this phenomenon is one of honest nostalgia — of paying homage to forebears and to the foundation of the world filmmakers currently inhabit, but it also hearkens back to a time when things were less permissive and celebrities and filmmakers had significantly more privacy — which comes dangerously close to being a regressive “those were the days when men were men and dames had gams up to here” viewpoint.
It’s sometimes hard to parse exactly what is healthy nostalgia and what isn’t, especially when notions of revisionism step in. Watching David Fincher’s meticulously crafted homage to early Hollywood, I was reminded of an idea that comes up often when Marc Maron interviews Hollywood old-timers on his podcast, WTF. Maron’s overarching image of those days is that it was “a smaller industry” in general, one where everyone knew each other and being in the moving picture business inevitably linked people together. It’s not a notion that is often dispelled by the interviewees — especially not those with yarn-spinning inclinations — and it’s certainly not one dispelled by Mank. Though pointing out hypocrisies and double standards is par for the course when it comes to this type, Mank is less a dark-side-of-the-dream treatise than one would expect from Fincher while also being fairly critical of the industry’s (in some ways, still ongoing) growing pains.
Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a New York playwright and theatre critic who moves to Hollywood in the early ’30s in search of easy money. “There are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots,” he’s told, but when he arrives in Hollywood, he finds a world peopled almost exclusively with other verbose, privileged, broken people. As the film opens in 1940, Mankiewicz is holed up in the desert with a broken leg, a physical therapist (Monika Gossman) and an assistant (Lily Collins) meant to help him recuperate and keep him off the sauce — two things that prove difficult to keep in check. Mankiewicz is ostensibly working on a screenplay for “boy genius” Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who phones in periodically from New York or sends his associate John Houseman to check on Mankiewicz, who is working with the idea that he will not be credited in the end product. The Citizen Kane script is a particularly thorny one for Mankiewicz, who bases much of the character on a personal acquaintance: William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the all-powerful publishing baron.
Mank (which was written over twenty years ago by Fincher’s father, Jack Fincher) is billed as a film about the writing of Citizen Kane; though certainly integral to the construction of Mank, Citizen Kane’s presence is mainly felt in the margins. One might question the usefulness of telling this story from the perspective of a man rarely associated with the triumphs of Kane, but that’s precisely the point. Mankiewicz isn’t exactly a glamorous figure, with his roly-poly frame and slurred witticisms, and he remains slightly on the outside of even the biggest things he’s ever a part of. A significant portion of the film is dedicated to Mank’s friendship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s longtime companion and protégée. You’ll recall that Davies came off particularly badly in Citizen Kane (although the character wasn’t named Marion Davies), a tone-deaf dilettante whose entire career is propelled by the largesses of Charles Foster Kane’s Pygmalion. Mank depicts Davies as an honest and self-aware celebrity, one who understands that her image and circumstances don’t necessarily give her the upper hand in most situations. Seyfried is rather incredible in the role — the film’s only instance of casting a celebrity as a celebrity — playing off Oldman admirably.
Many have pointed out that Mank resembles Oldman’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill: the same paunchy gait, the same relationship to vice, the same penchant for zingers and off-the-cuff one-liners, the exact same time period… but there’s something significantly less regal about Herman Mankiewicz, a likeable, intelligent but somewhat unknowable figure whose particular brand of charisma can be short-lived. Privy to drunken monologues (including one that ends when he clears the room by punctuating his speech with vomit), he cuts a particularly askew figure in the would-be glamorous world of Hollywood.
Fincher shoots the film with painstaking attention to detail in order to make it look like a film that would’ve come out in 1941, going as far as to cap each reel with cigarette burns. Though it sounds like a bit of a pointless flex on paper (and the cigarette burns are, truthfully, kind of superfluous), the technique makes the film extremely pleasant to watch, even when it’s sort of treading water with the trials and tribulations of a bedridden alcoholic. Fincher strikes a nearly perfect balance between obvious underlining and homages (many, many Hollywood notables of the time period appear, sometimes fleetingly) and a more contemporary reading of the material.
Where Mank perhaps falters is in the way both Finchers seem to ultimately treat Mankiewicz as an underdog. Mank ultimately suggests that Citizen Kane is more Mankiewicz’s work than anyone has let on, and that audiences and the press were ultimately foiled by Welles because he was a tempestuous 20-something and Mankiewicz was a preternaturally doddering 40-something alcoholic. This reading of the material isn’t necessarily a problem — if Tarantino can get away with suggesting whatever the hell he suggests at the end of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, then certainly Fincher can take Welles down a peg. But as the film shifts its focus to the whole Citizen Kane affair, it becomes increasingly cold and hermetic, a film that begins to apply convention where it seemed to expressly avoid convention before. Fincher has always been an exacting filmmaker with little space for messiness of any kind in his films, and when he turns his camera towards a subject that has inherent messiness, he doesn’t quite do that subject justice.
There’s lots to like about Mank. For most of its runtime, it completely eschews the ideas inherent to a biopic of its type and it rarely underlines its points with too much corn. It’s a very entertaining, classicist movie from top to bottom, but it’s also (ironically) not really the kind of material that Fincher is best suited for. Kind of a contradiction for a familial labour of love. ■
Mank is on Netflix as of Friday, Dec. 4. Watch the trailer here:
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