Opening in 1940: The 24-year old wunderkind Orson Welles — promised carte blanche by RKO Pictures to make any two projects he wished — tasks Mankiewicz with writing Citizen Kane in sixty days. Sporting a cast on his leg from a car crash, the alcoholic screenwriter takes residence on the North Verde Ranch in Victorville, California where his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), his nurse Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), and the aforementioned Houseman assist him. As with Citizen Kane, Mank is a nonlinear, fragmentary narrative told through flashbacks, retelling the screenwriter’s fall from the dizzying heights of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst’s (Charles Dance) inner circle.
Jack Fincher, the director’s late father, and former Time magazine bureau chief, wrote the script for Mank. And through flashbacks, the elder Fincher offers a frightening retelling of 1930s America: The Great Depression is raging. A second World War looms. Hollywood is teetering upon ruin. To hear the ominous dark strings, and boozy-sleazy horns — history dissolving into music — in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ vintage score, is to feel the era’s uncertainty. An uncertainty also felt by Mankiewicz. It’s why, though the magnate thinks him a court jester, Mank weasels his way near Hearst, and ignores the uneasy political views of Hearst’s inner circle, which includes Mayer and wiz-kid Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).
Mank is a reluctant hero. He prefers to fight with passive-aggressive quips, and is coziest by a warm bottle and a cold bet; Oldman delivers these barbs with sharp timing and has a great instinct for physical humor. As a bystander, the screenwriter amusingly watches when Mayer entreats his employees to take a 50% pay cut for eight weeks, in a bid to forestall the effects of dwindling ticket sales. And sneers when the studio’s agreeable celebrities decide the financial fate of the lowliest grip. He declines to fight for the new Writers Guild. He looks upon the Democratic-Socialist Upton Sinclair’s bid for California’s governorship at first with bemusement, then with horror, as Hollywood’s powerbrokers stack the deck against him. But he lacks all conviction to take a stand. The resulting regret — encapsulated by Oldman translating quiet misgivings into snide asides — hurdles him toward writing Citizen Kane.
Mank, at its heart, is a story about guilt. Not just for actions untaken, but potential left unfulfilled. Even Thalberg wonders aloud what Mank would have been if he maximized his efforts. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt’s gorgeous photography, a chiaroscuro of celestial lighting and deep shadows — a hallmark of Citizen Kane — speaks to such remorse. Even so Mank, not unlike The Social Network, is cold and distant. For some reason, Fincher paints the wisecracking screenwriter with the same broad strokes as the calculating Facebook titan. Mank was a tragic figure. A misunderstood genius rarely given his due credit. But that pathos never lingers upon him. In fact, it’s missing from most of the narrative’s key figures.While Hearst, Mayer, and Thalberg are all major players in Mank, they’re mere suits relegated to shouty outbursts and jeering sneers. Mank’s writing room — filled with luminaries like Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms) and Charles Lederer (Joseph Cross), who trade buzzy dialogue common for radio plays of the time — are the same. Even the forlorn subplots, such as Mrs. Alexander’s missing RAF husband and fellow-writer Shelly Metcalf (Jamie McShane) selling his soul to direct, are without pathos. Mank is the best-looking wax museum I’ve ever seen. But the overstuffed script, further blunted by convoluted time-jumps, detracts from these intriguing supporting characters by prizing a bouncy edit over luxuriating in breathtaking shots: A profile of Mankiewicz backgrounded by a flashing 1934 sign, the celestial outline of Welles striding into Mankiewicz’s hospital room, and a woozy montage of a depressing election night. This is fantastic imagery crafted all for naught.
The lone exception is Hearst’s wife-turned-starlet Marion Davies (played by the incredible Amanda Seyfried). If Fincher’s Mank is a reclamation project for anyone, it’s for her. The screenwriter and ingénue share an unlikely bond: They are so much more intelligent than they’re given credit for, especially Davies. And Seyfriend is so good at protecting this thankless character. One could easily envision a scenario where Davies is relegated to a fop in the vein as Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain. But in scene after scene, the woman who served as the basis for Susan Alexander Kane — the talentless opera singer made a prisoner in her husband’s fortress Xanadu — regains her stature. She finds the best parts to love in Hearst and Mank, even if they love her even less. The charm and the boundless reservoir of empathy Seyfried springs make Mank’s later betrayal all the more heartbreaking. In a film filled with guarded characters, she’s the most unguarded and nearly saves this flick.
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