Mank is one of those passion projects that Hollywood studios understandably pass on every year, in this case doing so for more than two decades, despite its strong attractiveness to A-list talent and prospects for Academy Award nominations. The script is by a deceased-journalist-turned-unproduced-screenwriter named Jack Fincher. Jack Fincher (1930-2003) was the father of David Fincher, one of the most gifted directors working in Hollywood, and now the son has repaid the father by putting maximum style into adapting this curio for the screen.
Gary Oldman plays the title character, Herman J. Mankiewicz, a wit and playwright who wrote dozens of screenplays, most of them hack jobs, but who is today remembered mainly for crafting the revolutionary script of Citizen Kane, for which its director Orson Welles sought sole credit. Mank isn’t about the making of Citizen Kane but merely about its writing. Mank spends half the movie in bed recovering from a leg injury, dictating ideas, scheming to get his hands on the alcohol that is being denied to him, and flinging one-liners in the direction of his amanuensis (Lily Collins) and Welles’s chosen go-between, John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who in the Seventies would become a famous actor but at this point was merely a flunky to the vainglorious Welles (Tom Burke).
Mank (on Netflix) is strictly inside baseball for film nerds and awards voters who have repeatedly demonstrated that, of all subjects on earth, the one they find most interesting is the industry they are in. The reason this quip-laden but unfocused script finally got filmed at all is obvious: Netflix is willing to spend shedloads of money in pursuit of Academy Awards it believes will grant it the legitimacy it desperately craves.
High acclaim will be well deserved in the case of Gary Oldman, who gives one of those dazzling performances that can scarcely be overpraised. Because Mank was a mere scribe, not a man of action, and a cynic who prided himself on maintaining a wry detachment from his surroundings, the role doesn’t present obvious opportunities for scene-stealing. It’s the voice work here that’s mesmerizing. The scratched, quizzical tone Oldman deploys is comparable to Daniel Day Lewis’s vocal impression of Abraham Lincoln in its creative force and in its power to dominate all others in the room — to overwhelm by underwhelming. It was only three years ago that Oldman won his first Oscar, for Darkest Hour, but even those who don’t particularly like Mank must concede that Oldman is so astonishing in this role that he deserves to fill another trophy case with gongs, laurels, wreaths, certificates, and statuettes.
Oldman is the face of a technically marvelous production. Fincher has conceived the film as a caricature of Golden Age Hollywood filmmaking, complete with a lush, romantic score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Finch) that mimics the style of prewar composers such as Max Steiner; sumptuous, shadowy black-and-white photography (by Erik Messerschmidt); and a production design (by Donald Graham Burt) that recaptures how 1940 Hollywood saw everything. For extra boffin points, Fincher begins scenes with titles using screenwriting lingo and even throws in old-school reel-change markings — those little squiggles in the top right frame of the film that, in pre-digital days, used to indicate when it was time for the person in the booth to switch off one projector and turn on the other. I think Fincher is the first director I’ve ever seen use a fake cue mark. Somewhere out there other meta-filmmakers (the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino) must be slapping their foreheads and cursing themselves for not thinking of this first.
Still, this is just a spiffy example of Hollywood’s endless navel-gazing and Mank must stand or fall based on its substance, not its packaging. As a narrative, Mank flails. To get us out of the room where Herman works on the screenplay, Fincher flashes back to his mid-Thirties friendship with the newspaper baron he lampoons in Citizen Kane, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Hearst’s showgirlfriend Marion Davies (a delightful Amanda Seyfried, doing a throwback Brooklyn accent). Mank was a frequent guest at San Simeon, the spooky palace Hearst built for himself on the California coast, and Fincher has great fun recreating this grandly macabre space and the costumed sycophants who peopled it. Too bad production design isn’t drama. The film keeps noodling around the relationship between Hearst, Mankiewicz, and the former’s toadying pal, MGM chief L.B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) without ever making much of a point, except that Mank has a witty comment for everything and feels a bit like a trained monkey around the swells. Reaching for social significance, Fincher gets bogged down in the uninteresting details of Mankiewicz’s and Hearst’s opposing views on Upton Sinclair, the muckraker-turned-politician who ran for California governor in 1934 on an unapologetic socialist platform but was soundly beaten by incumbent Republican Frank Merriam. At the time, Hollywood studios lent their cultural power to the center-right, much to the distaste of ardent left-wing writers such as Mankiewicz, but for the latter to be shocked that newsreels used paid actors for propaganda purposes seems hopelessly naive, given how proudly world-weary Mankiewicz was.
Mankiewicz’s zingers may have been stellar, and Oldman delivers them brilliantly, but Mank is a hollow character study. The Finchers love Herman so much that they think it’s enough to just invite us into Mankiewicz’s tortured soul for a slow-moving two hours and twelve minutes. But because Fincher has failed to bring up any particularly compelling questions to resolve, a great many viewers will switch it off before getting close to the end.