David Fincher’s biopic of Citizen Kane writer Herman J. Mankiewicz is a slick, cynical reframing of Hollywood’s Golden Age.
As Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) parades around a dinner table, others watch on, their expressions ranging from annoyance to shame. Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) sneaks some hard liquor into her drink to deal with his raving, at which point he vomits up his meal. “The white wine came up with the fish,” he crookedly croons as if to force some luxury back into the situation. It doesn’t work.
It often feels like Mankiewicz himself is talking through the screen. It’s like he suspects that he’s in a movie that’s judging his actions while refusing to accept it. David Fincher isn’t the most sentimental guy; that isn’t a surprise. What is something of a surprise is how he and the script from his late father, Jack Fincher, lure audiences into a false sense of nostalgia while negating its most amiable aspects. The structure is thoroughly indebted to Citizen Kane to the point where it borders on cutesy. The superimposed sluglines to introduce flashbacks—plainly declaring “FLASHBACK” each time—play like a recurring joke. And for the most part, it is.
On the surface, Mank is about Mankiewicz’s struggle to parse Citizen Kane down from a 300-something-page rainforest to something that pleases RKO. Those moments are what pay off the least because they’re the most literal. There are moments—stretches, even—that are downright delightful, but they truly work because that amiability is a farce in more ways than one. As the flashbacks end and the liquor cabinet gets emptier, it all feels like a distraction from the inevitable: A series of trusty biopic title cards documenting Mankiewicz’s death at just 55 years old. “He was 55,” the screen hangs on. “He was 55.”
But before that happens, David Fincher tricks the viewers into liking the movie. But it’s quite unlikable, full of myopic, sometimes selfish characters that chum it up to stroke their egos. They brush off “Hitler, Schmitler” in the early-to-mid-1930s; they decry socialist and progressive attempts to rectify the Great Depression. But don’t mind them. Fall under the spell of Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross’ score and Erik Messerschmidt’s cinematography, the latter of which leans into its anachronisms of its digital look. Let the performances, namely that of Seyfried, beguile you. What, are you going to hold on to the title character’s destructive behavior instead?
Much of Mank is full of people playing versions of others playing versions of themselves. Jack Fincher’s script plays itself too, but it’s largely thanks to David Fincher’s direction that the film largely sees its own ironies. That doesn’t mean it’s always successful. When Mank isn’t too dialed into its cynicism, its tone starts to wobble. The showbiz discussions aren’t entirely fresh and function more as a counterpoint to the time’s sociopolitical shifts. The cigarette burns that appear on the top right corner of the screen are also much too coy, and one historical accuracy is downright sloppy. The final product is much more effective as a portrait of the ‘30s and early ‘40s than the inception of Citizen Kane, and it’s often because the latter isn’t even the real focus.
At times, Mank is about as interested in Orson Welles’ film as Marie Antoinette is in traditionalism. It’s why, then, discussions of writers’ credits and creative differences cause pacing hiccups. The movie isn’t massively long at 131 minutes, but it’s still bloated at points. It doesn’t help either that Tom Burke’s depiction of Welles turns the director into what might as well be a mustache-twirling villain at points. His performance is a step down from co-stars’, and it’s not entirely clear just how intentional it is.
[S]omething of a surprise is how [David Fincher] and the script from his late father, Jack Fincher, lure audiences into a false sense of nostalgia while negating its most amiable aspects.
Thankfully, the movie reorients itself in its final minutes. More than that, it solidifies what works best about Mank—its ability to appear playful without actually being such. After all the issues Mankiewicz had and how he was a hassle to those around him, he’s still the one winning Citizen Kane’s only Oscar. After all the trouble he did to get there, he’s not even able to accept the award in person. And as mentioned before, the film doles out a few title cards to explain what happened to the man afterward.
It says that he died of complications of alcoholism at 55. The rest of the words fade away, leaving just “He was 55” on the screen over his face for several seconds. Yes, after the success he associated himself with, insisted upon, and eventually got, he lasted to 55 years old. Only 55. Many will inevitably declare Mank to be a love letter. Truthfully, it’s a tragedy.
Mank is now in select theaters and premieres on Netflix on Friday, December 4.