Review: ‘Mank’ teeters on the edge of pure hagiography
The films of David Fincher are so unique and identifiable (the murky green tint helps) that it’s easy to forget he’s a studio director. Not a single one of his movies started with him—they were ideas and spec scripts shopped around by studio execs and writers, gestating in industry minds before ending up in Fincher’s hands. Mank, the director’s eleventh film, is his first deviation from that model. The screenplay was written by Fincher’s late father Jack, a journalist for Life magazine and screenwriter who never saw a project realized (those studio execs are tricky). But Netflix, ever willing to throw money at acclaimed directors, has given Fincher the resources to bring his father’s work to the screen at last. And thank god for that, because there’s no syllable more fun to say than “Mank”!
Mank (Mank!) is short for Herman J. Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane with Orson Welles, depending on whom you believe. The authorship of Citizen Kane’s screenplay is the subject of some controversy; the rumor in Hollywood circles was that Welles didn’t deserve the co-billing because Mankiewicz did all the work, and despite an official settlement of this credit dispute between the two, the rumor managed to outlive both of them. It’s been roundly discredited by now, but the narrative of underdog Mank versus the mighty Welles remains a popular one. It certainly made an impression on Jack Fincher.
That Mank has a pro-Mank bias on the matter might not be a surprise, but how little it factors into the movie is. Welles barely appears in person; he’s mostly a name hovering in the back of Mankiewicz’ mind, prodding him and paying him to finish the screenplay he promised. Mank’s real villain is 1940s Hollywood, a monstrous paradox of business and art that courted the very oligarchs Mankiewicz condemned in his Hollywood productions. Welles is just a bully with an ego and a checkbook. Mank’s original script was reportedly polished to tone down its anti-Welles streak—which is a shame, actually. Tom Burke’s performance as Orson Welles isn’t an uncanny portrayal, but it is fun, and it would’ve been nice to see more of him on screen. Also, if Mank were virulently, unapologetically, inadvisably anti-Welles, it would at least be focused on something.
The film’s first hour—or longer, it felt like longer—is so enamored with the stage it’s setting that it forgets the real theater. When the dialogue isn’t showering our ears with the names of every other major player in Hollywood’s Golden Age, lighting up our neurons with the cheap thrill of being in the know (don’t knock it till you try it), it’s erupting in insufferable streams of screenwriter-writing-screenwriters talk. Mank and his cohorts (and, with enough time, near everyone else) share a suspiciously homogenous sense of humor that proves inexhaustible. Everything takes a backseat to witticisms, and when exposition needs to be crammed into that word soup, clarity of conversation is the first casualty. When Marion Davies tells Mank, “I hate talking sharp, I never know what’s going on,” one can sympathize with her plight. Or to borrow the immortal words of another Fincher character: “oh I get it. It’s very clever. How’s that working out for you?”
If all the talking is exhausting, the pacing is worse. In an earnest but naked attempt to echo Citizen Kane’s time-hopping structure, Mank switches back and forth between the past and present, but it feels less like the scenes were intended to be sequenced that way and more like a chronological story was halved and shuffled like a deck of cards. There’s a stop-and-start lurch to the way the movie tracks Mank’s story. Perhaps if Mankiewicz were given a compelling character arc, moving back and forth between points in his development would reveal some interior truth. But that’s not the case either.
Mank teeters on the edge of pure hagiography. Jack Fincher’s Mankiewicz has his flaws, but they’re softened into easily lovable ones: roguish drunkenness, abrasive honesty, the annoying tendency of always being right. He gravitates to the right thing by nature, if a little clumsily and theatrically. Why is it interesting that this paragon of virtue and preternaturally talented wordsmith wrote a masterpiece critical of the wealthy and powerful? Of course he did. Mank heaps praise on Mank like Jon Favreau’s Chef heaps praise on Jon Favreau—that is to say, probably too much. The way the movie’s women can’t help but fawn over him turns hero worship into gross adulation.
If you watch Mank on mute, though, it’s a gorgeous black-and-white throwback filled with playful recreations of Citizen Kane’s most iconic shots and effects, bolstered by some of Fincher’s best framing and lighting work to date. If you go the silent film route, just don’t forget to listen to Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ glorious throwback score later.