Sorry not sorry, but it must be said: Mank is pretty rank.
As auteur filmmakers grow older, they go one of several ways: They can hone their craft into something unmistakably and unreproducibly them (think David Lynch with Twin Peaks: The Return), remain reliably good but never quite great, or drift into self-indulgence and crank out stinkers that make you question everything they did before. Mank, unfortunately, falls into the latter category for David Fincher. And that is a genuine bummer.
Fincher and Classic Hollywood, two things that I love. Two great tastes that do not taste great together. If anyone is the target audience for Mank, it’s me; I’ve loved both Fincher and Hollywood history since I was a teenager and started developing tastes of my own. I come from a line of cinephiles who can recite entire casts of classic movies and all the gossip that went on behind the scenes as they were made. I also come from a line of cinephiles who have no patience for puffed-up directors, their bloated egos, and the so-called masterpieces they produced.
So, then again, maybe I’m not the target audience for Mank at all. I’m the audience that Mank conveniently forgot existed.
Not for one minute was I fooled by this film’s trappings, which in and of themselves are annoying. The Citizen Kane aesthetic it tries to recreate using digital technology is awful, so try-hard and blatantly fake that even the smoothness of a black-and-white screen can’t save it. The cinematography is exhausting. The score — from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, no less! — is one of the worst I’ve ever heard, aping a mood that simply does not exist anymore and screaming it at you so YOU KNOW THIS IS THE 1930s. All of it together is over-the-top; all of it together just makes you want to hop over to Criterion Channel and watch a pre-Code film that isn’t even great. A mediocre B-picture is more worth your time than Mank.
Maybe the technical mistakes would be forgivable if the script and the story were interesting, but that’s a little too much to hope for, isn’t it? And it shouldn’t be, on paper. Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the titular Mank, navigates the ups and downs of Hollywood over two timelines: early in the 1930s, when he’s at the top of his game and partying with the likes of Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance); and later after he’s burned all his bridges and writing Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane from an isolated ranch as he recovers from a broken leg. There is a way that that could be interesting, but the script from Jack Fincher (David’s late father) makes it heavy with inside baseball from the start: If you know the people and politics of Hollywood at this time in history, then you know, and if you don’t, then you’re shit out of luck.
This is coming from someone who does know. I was able to keep up with the name-dropping and the connections between studios and the political scene in California in the 1930s because I’ve spent a great deal of time studying this era for fun. Mank is never fun. There are ways to make something a period piece without spouting an endless list of names from the characters’ mouths, and also to focus on the context necessary to tell the story while not over-seasoning it with so many details that maybe one viewer in 10 will catch. This is not a knock on Mank viewers so much as it is on its storytellers — and also Netflix, whose library of classic films has always been embarrassingly sparse. With almost nothing on their service dating before the 1970s, how are viewers who don’t obsess over Hollywood’s Golden Age supposed to understand the history they are watching in Mank let alone care about it?
And there’s the real problem. There’s nothing to care about in Mank because it focuses on the least interesting person in the saga of Citizen Kane. (Oldman’s conservative performance, which is apparently what current Hollywood is rewarding him for now that he’s distanced himself from a long career of off-the-charts character work, doesn’t help.) Nothing distinguishes Mank from the hundreds of washed-up alcoholic screenwriters both fictional and fictionialized around whom Hollywood loves to center its movies. We’ve seen it all before, yet here it is again. Why is that? Is it because writers really were the bastions of morality mired in a corrupt system that used and abused them at every turn, or is it just because other writers see themselves and their struggles in the trials of writers past and lionize them in ways that are as tiresome as they are unrealistic?
I’m not saying screenwriters in the 1930s and ’40s didn’t go through some shit. Accusations of communism and socialism, subtly but just as often overtly tinged with anti-Semitic rhetoric, were thrown around long before McCarthy was on the scene. But even when Mank gets the most political, Mank himself is outside and / or above it all. He’s neither a communist nor a socialist, so his battle with the studio bigwigs doesn’t lie there. In fact, he seems to be a Republican in front of other people and maybe a Democrat in secret, but that’s never really clear either. At best, he’s just a commentator on other people’s politics who approaches almost Sorkin-esque levels of parody except that the movie doesn’t care to commit him that deeply to any one set of ideals. All it wants is for him to be the smartest man in the room.
And that’s just boring.
Hollywood scholarship (which is what this movie wants to be) has moved on from this very narrow and repetitive story of the old, white, male writer whose brilliance has gone unsung for nearly a century, and thank god for that. That take is as tired as its subjects. Karina Longworth and Anne Helen Petersen, meanwhile, provide accessible and engrossing examinations of Hollywood from the perspective of those affected by internal power structures but not necessarily a part of them; it’s their good work that directors wishing to honor the Hollywood of the past should be drawing from now. Longworth especially is a master of finding the most overlooked people in the story and shaping the narrative around them — not Howard Hughes, but the actresses he drew into his orbit and then cast aside; not Louis B. Mayer, but the lives of the men he controlled and the women he ruined.
By that logic, the most fascinating person in Mank and the one who most deserves the biopic treatment is not Mank, Mayer, Welles or Hearst, but Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Hearst’s rival newspapers made her a joke back when she was popular, a millionaire’s mistress whose talent did not match her older paramour’s aspirations for her, but that could’ve been forgotten in time if Citizen Kane hadn’t so cruelly immortalized her. Seyfried is the only one who feels like she’s straight out of the 1930s and she infuses Davies with a vitality that the jokes have stolen from her in the 123 years since her birth. For a while, it even seems like she is the emotional crux of Mank, that his facing his great betrayal of her will be his ultimate test as a human being. But on both fronts, the movie fails and, once again fails Marion. The scene where she confronts Mank plays out like a fantasy, not a confrontation at all despite the fact that he single-handedly cemented her place in history as a ridiculous relic. How easy it is for men to write a woman’s forgiveness rather than it is to apologize and actually earn it.
Nothing in the direction resembles the David Fincher we know and love, but maybe the ultimate blame for this lies in his father’s lackluster script. It would be one thing if the movie positioned Mank’s compulsion to write Citizen Kane as both a takedown of and a sort of perverse empathy for Hearst, but this motivation — or any at all — is noticeably missing. It would be another if Mank’s central conflict was a private war against Hearst or an inspired battle with Welles for getting credit for Kane’s script; either one would at least be interesting, but it’s not until the final three scenes that the script decides the whole movie is about a vague mixture of both. Before that, Mank simply glides along, peripheral and directionless in his own story, and it’s as uninspired as it is irritating. And, frankly, for David Fincher, it’s embarrassing. As a director, he is usually better than this, even in his weaker movies. He’s good at making me care about men about whom I would never normally care. But here, there is simply nothing and no one worthy of care. Nothing at all.
In the end, it’s ironic that Netflix is repeating RKO’s mistakes. RKO gave an unheard-of blank check to boy-genius Welles and lost hundred of thousands of dollars over the course of several films. Netflix is more or less doing the same with other auteur directors like Fincher. The only difference is there will never be a day when someone, let alone entire generations, looks back on Mank as though it were unappreciated in its time. Mank will simply and rightly be forgotten, a failure that isn’t even interesting to watch.
Mank will be released to stream on Netflix tomorrow, December 4, 2020.