Mank (2020)

Content by Tony Macklin. Originally published on December 6, 2020 @

Mank is a dissonant film.

The history is dissonant. The flashbacks add dissonance. The music by Atticus Ross and Trent Rezner is dissonant. Actuality and concoction are dissonant.

What the hell is director David Fincher doing?

David may remind us of Jared Kushner, since he is serving his father. David Fincher's film is based on his late father Jack's screenplay. Jack employed the thesis that critic Pauline Kael espoused in an ugly episode in the early 1970s. Kael took the notes that UCLA professor Howard Suber had written on research of Herman J. Mankiewicz's contribution to Citizen Kane.

In two articles in The New Yorker and then in a book Raising Kane, Kael promoted the theory that Citizen Kane was Mankiewicz's Citizen Kane. She raised the writer over the director.

In a spectacular act of hutzpah, Kael did not give any credit to Suber although she had promised him she would. She didn't mention him.

David Fincher has added to Kael's misdirection. In Mank, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is more an interloper than the essential creative force behind Citizen Kane.

For several decadal polls of critics and filmmakers in the British journal Sight and Sound, Citizen Kane was chosen as the number one film ever made. It was replaced in 2012 by Hitch's Vertigo. [The next poll will be in 2022. Citizen Kane still will be highly rated.]

Citizen Kane is not a classic film because it was written by Mankiewicz (and Welles). It is a classic primarily because Welles was a bold force of memorable creativity as director and leading man. Citizen Kane is an Orson Welles film.

David Fincher knows that a bad director destroys a good script, and a good director can save a bad script. One further irony is that Fincher has only had a writing credit in two short films in 2002. He stands as director.

A film directed by David Fincher is a David Fincher film. It's not a Gillian Flynn film, or a James Vanderbilt film, of a Jim Uhls film.

Mank is the convoluted story of writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). He is bedridden in a cabin in Victorville, California, because of a serious car accident. In bed, at the behest of Orson Welles. Mankiewicz sets about writing a screenplay for Citizen Kane.

The film, teeming with flashbacks, shows Mankiewicz's relationships with notable Hollywood figures. In 1934 he was approached by Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) to join up against Upton Sinclair, running for governor of California. Sinclair had written a scalding indictment of the meat-packing industry, The Jungle. Hollywood GOP moguls had joined together to stop this "socialist."

On one level, Mank is about the mendacity of politics and the gullibility of the public. Propaganda has a potent impact on the screen. Do things ever change? Later Mankiewicz says of Hearst as a potential political candidate, "They know he values power over people."

Mankiewicz finds himself trying to balance between his principles and commerce. His principles waver, but his guilt grows. A friend of his who shares the same dilemma commits suicide. Mankiewicz drinks to excess.

At the end Mankiewicz tries to exert his influence against Hearst and Welles.

Fincher has a loose grip on the facts - very loose. His father's screenplay tries several stories at once. One of the assets of Jack Fincher's screenplay is the literate dialogue. Mankiewicz quotes Pascal, Cervantes, Goebbels, and Groucho.

But David Fincher's direction of actors speaking dialogue is haphazard. Often characters talk without listening. They don't take time to hear; they just speak. For instance, the banter in the writers' room is too abrupt and rushed. They are simply actors speaking their lines hurriedly.

One of the major themes is the concept of half. In Mank, halves matter. At the end, when he is in Rio de Janeiro, Welles is asked what he has to say to Mankiewicz about the Oscar they share for the screenplay. [It was the only nomination that won out of eight.] Welles replies, "He can kiss my half."

The theme also occurs in a climactic scene when Mank appears at one of Hearst's theme parties. Symbolically, he is the only one not in costume. Mankiewicz drunkenly berates Hearst, but Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) says, "He paid half your salary."

What is the value of half?

The acting in Mank is uneven, as is the characterization. Sam Troughton is miscast as John Houseman. Houseman, in actuality, always had personality and special gravitas. In Mank, Houseman is a nebbish, with a meager personality. No way.

Gary Oldman is solid as the rumpled, disheveled, alcoholic Herman J. Mankiewicz. Marion Davies is redeemed by Amanda Seyfried from her characterization in Citizen Kane. We see her in Mank as Marion Douras from Brooklyn, New York, with an appealing sense of humility and loyalty.

Another character with humanity in Mank is Hearst portrayed by Charles Dance. But I much prefer Robert De Niro's personification of an Irving Thalberg-type character in The Last Tycoon (1976) to Ferdinand Kingsley in Mank.

Maybe I'm too much a stickler for verisimilitude. The personable host of Turner Classic Movies, Ben Mankiewicz, the grandson of Herman, has always provoked me by mispronouncing The Maltese Falcon as "Foul-con." But he does get the title half right.

If Mank was an equitable debate between Herman Mankiewicz and Orson Welles, it would be different. Mankiewicz did sign a contract with Mercury Theater and was an employee, but I could understand Mankiewicz not wanting to give up his baby.

But there is no debate in Mank. Fincher has decided who is totally in the right. It's Mankiewicz.

Does truth matter? Or just half-truths.

© 2000-2023 Tony Macklin