Movies have explored writers, and the process of storytelling, in a variety of ways. Charlie Kaufman examined a novelist struggling to complete his book in Adaptation. Will Farrell was at the mercy of an English narrator in Stranger Than Fiction. We even experienced Truman Capote’s relationship with an imprisoned murderer while writing his genre-bending non-fiction book In Cold Blood in the beautiful (and a personal favorite) Capote. These films took the writing process and held it under a microscope to highlight the writer’s psyche and how a writer completes their vision.
In Mank, the latest film by director David Fincher, Gary Oldman plays Herman J. Mankiewicz (a.k.a Mank), an alcoholic writer sent to the Mojave desert to finish his screenplay, the revered Citizen Kane. While the film does acknowledge some of the processes that went into the writing of one of cinema’s most acclaimed films, Mank sidetracks to flashbacks in the 1930s as Mank grapples with challenging political ideals from the studio.
Though the film is well crafted, Mank himself is not a particularly interesting figure. Rather than understanding the craft of his writing, we are informed about the people he was writing about. The film is weighted under relentless cuts, attempting to explain Mank’s souring relationships in 1930s Hollywood and how he made a comeback. But the film doesn’t justify its existence as the stakes aren’t apparent. To think we might’ve been treated to a third season of Fincher’s Netflix series Mindhunter instead makes the experience less enjoyable.
Now, should you watch Citizen Kane before viewing this film? The short answer is that you need to be aware of the film to be in on the joke. There are too many references to Citizen Kane to suggest watching Mank without prior viewing. But, surprisingly, the film isn’t available to watch on Netflix. You must rent the movie or view it on streaming competitor HBO Max to get a sense of much of what goes on in Mank. I only watched Citizen Kane for the first time just before Christmas, and while it was a fascinating film, it didn’t exactly inspire me to find out more about its screenwriter. But alas, here’s a story about Mank, so homework is required.
So what is the film about? Told in flashbacks, Mank spoils his industry relationships during the 1934 California election when colleague, MGM chief Mayer (Arliss Howard), the supposed lapdog for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), throws his weight behind the Republican nominee. Mank is all but thrust out of the studio before landing into the mischievous palms of a young Orson Welles (Tom Burke), who has complete creative control over his next film and enlists Mank to write the first draft, albeit without credit. After a car accident, Mank is bedridden, shipped off to the Mojave desert with a typist and a nurse, and is forced to write the screenplay within 60 days.
Whatever the flashbacks are trying to inform about Mank’s isolation from Hollywood, we already have the outcome. Mank is now writing the screenplay, and it will be the most successful film in his lifetime. The film devotes over half its runtime to his relationships with friends and colleagues, who informed the characters in Citizen Kane. Unfortunately, the film seldom feels illuminating. That we are served over two hours of this man’s story would’ve been better spent had we learned more about his philanthropy and charitable ways.
Interestingly, midway through the film, Rita asks Freaulin why she is willing to help Mank buy alcohol and maintain his drinking habit. She responds that Mank helped save 100 people from her village who otherwise would’ve been killed at Reich Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels’ hands. She trusts that Mank is a man who can look after himself because he is a good man. Well, that sounds like an exciting film!
As expected, Mank is visually appealing and features fine performances from Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried as Hollywood Starlet Marion Davies. Still, it seems to value its production over substance as Fincher’s aesthetic is seamless. A scene where Mank and Marion take a midnight stroll around exotic animal enclosures is brilliantly captured by Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and brought to life by Production Designer Donald Graham Burt. However, the film never manages to produce a reason for its existence. Herman J. Mankiewicz seems to be a talented writer, but we don’t get enough access to his life. Even Mank’s wife concedes that he’s a drunk who neglects his family and pursues platonic relationships with other women. He may be a talented guy, but as the current entertainment industry pushes beyond the stories of men who took liberties in power, Mank feels like a film past its relevance.
Early in the film, Mank wakes after a drunken night on the studio lot to harrowing screams. He stumbles outside and follows the sound of an active film set where horses are galloping over the lawn while Marion stands chained on an elevated platform and yells in character for a savior. As Mank approaches basecamp, an executive sitting under a tent looks to his colleague beside him and asks who this man is stumbling toward them. ‘Just a writer,’ the executive scoffs.
As the film suggests… Indeed, he is.