Review

  • Mank is a movie aimed squarely at film buffs that tells the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. I am a film buff. I love Citizen Kane. I am this movie's target audience. It is bad as a movie, and worse as a movie eager to be compared with the works of Orson Welles.

    In the film, Gary Oldman plays alcoholic scriptwriter Herman Mankiewicz, who holes up in the middle of nowhere with a broken leg and the assignment to write a full script in a month. He bases the script on the life of powerful millionaire William Randolph Hearst. In flashbacks, we see Mank's dissolute life as a screenwriter, drunk, and witticism machine, as well as his friendship with Hearst's mistress, Marion Davies.

    1. Mank as a movie

    I want to take about Mank's failures as a film for film buffs and it's failures as Welles-lite, but I don't want that to get in the way of the most important point, which is that this movie is simply dull. Oldham is persuasive as Mank, but the character is like one played by Thomas Mitchell in old 40s movie; a side character whose witticisms are fun but never make you want to find out what makes him tick.

    The alcoholic writer isn't an inherently uninteresting subject, but it's also not an inherently interesting one, and the movie doesn't give us any particular reason to care about Mank. The flashbacks are sometimes interesting and sometimes not, but in neither case do they change the movie from basically being a guy in a house typing and getting blackout drunk. There is nothing within the movie that makes you curious about the characters or the situation - the only thing that kept me watching was curiosity about Citizen Kane, and if I'd never seen that movie I wouldn't have finished this one. The acting is good, and Amanda Seyfried is actually exceptionally good as Davies, but there's really not much to this at all. It doesn't pull you in at the start, and the end feels as meh as the rest of it.

    2. Mank as a film buff movie

    The best thing about Mank is the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, which does a dead-on impression of Greg Toland's work in Citizen Kane, down to emulating specific scenes. Set and costume design are also first-rate.

    But as behind-the-scenes look into Citizen Kane the movie is a failure. One thing I wanted to know was why, if Mank was friends with Hearst and with Davies, he turned on them so savagely.

    Some say that the treatment of Davies was the thing that most harmed Kane most of all. True, Not only was it reportedly the main reason Hearst wanted to destroy the movie, but Davies, a talented light comedian pushed into inappropriate roles by her sugar daddy, was charming and well-liked (which Seyfried captures wonderfully) and threw big Hollywood parties and because of that, Hollywood would not rally around Kane as Hearst attacked it. Even Welles admitted, years later, that he had been unfair to Davies.

    So why did Mank trash her? The movie offers a simplistic answer involving Upton Sinclair that doesn't make much sense and, when I researched it, isn't remotely what happened. There is no thoughtful attempt to consider why a writer would use his friends as grist for the mill, even though other writers have successfully looked at the very subject without reducing it all to petty, self-righteous vengeance.

    The movie also falls onto the long-exploded Pauline Kael side of the who-wrote-Kane debate, suggesting Welles did pretty much nothing on the script. A little research shows scholars have conclusively refuted this (one of the top of the "most helpful" IMDB user reviews gives a good overview of this).

    The only reason I kept with this movie was for the real-life story that it couldn't bother to tell.

    3. Mank vs. Orson Welles

    By making a movie about Citizen Kane, and making it look just like Citizen Kane, director David Fincher would seem to be *daring* people to compare his work with Welles. But it falls short of Welles work in every non-superficial way.

    Welles was certainly a big fan of flashy cinematography. He could be gimmicky. But there was always intent to it. Gimmicks were always both "oh, cool!" and "look how that emphasizes the point he's making in a fresh way."

    Beyond the flash, Welles was a filmmaker who never gave you all the answers. He gave you clues. Citizen Kane is about the search for Rosebud, but once you know what it is, you still don't know Kane. It's another clue, but it's up to the viewer to decide how to sort these clues. Welles gave you jigsaw puzzles with some pieces missing and some extra pieces. It was true of Kane and pretty much everything he did through his final film, The Other Side of the Wind. Welles did not consider people explicable. They lie about their motives to others and themselves, they change from moment to moment and year to year. It is the complexity, not the cinematographic tricks, that make Welles one of history's greatest filmmakers.

    But Fincher's Mank isn't complex at all. His story arc is straightforward. He's a brilliant drunk. His motives are simplistic. He's self-destructive in a predictable fashion. Like all of us he has his good points and his bad points, moments of spite and moments of grace, but then, so does every character in a Hallmark movie.

    And the gimmicks in Mank are just gimmicks. If you know Kane's opening scene you'll recognize the falling whisky glass as a callback, but what does it say? Not a thing. Not. One. Single. Thing.

    Mank is a dull, unimaginative film that is infuriating because it has so many of the hallmarks of a good one. That makes it feel like a cheat. I regret watching it, and recommend everyone skip it.