Among the tragic apocalypses of our age is that the movie Citizen Kane means nothing to Millennials. Millennials toppled it from Sight and Sound’s most recent decadal Greatest Film of All Times poll. So why has trendy filmmaker David Fincher embarked on Mank, a smart-alecky, semi-nostalgic look back at Citizen Kane’s creation?
Cutely titled after Herman Mankiewicz, co-writer of Citizen Kane’s screenplay, Mank does the Millennial thing: unwarranted idolatry. When Mank (played as obese and cynical by Gary Oldman) doubts his talent, his secretary butters him up: “You’re super at it.” Fincher makes a god out of a Hollywood super-hack in the same way that the media praise Steve McQueen, Jordan Peele, J. J. Abrams, Alfonso Cuarón, Megan Rapinoe, Kylie Jenner, Colin Kaepernick, Taylor Swift, John Legend, and Shaun King. Millennials can’t tell the difference between artists, athletes, intellects, and influencers. So Mank inflates a story about the obscure co-screenwriter of a film that has no impact on the culture, turning it into a Netflix pseudo-event.
You won’t find a clearer demonstration of class differences in American life, which excuse the malfeasances of the elite, than this film about Mankiewicz and his self-righteous betrayal of colleagues and friends. Told against a background of Jewish competitiveness in Hollywood (high-rollers Herman and his sibling Joseph, best known for All About Eve), the biblical parallels are replaced with flashbacks to ethnic antagonism, using the context of political righteousness when Hollywood was split over the 1934 gubernatorial race of socialist Upton Sinclair. These could be lessons for our times, but they don’t make Mank a good movie because Fincher treats these issues facetiously.
Mank is so bogus, and so lacks dramatic credibility, I’ll skip the shoddy narrative (from a script written by Fincher’s father, Jack) to note the immediate offense of this folly. Fincher has chosen to honor Mankiewicz over director, co-writer, and lead actor Orson Welles (a minor role played by Tom Burke) as a celebrity-cult aberration.
Shot in black and white, Mank has that same slick surface as Netflix’s Roma and the digital gloss of Zodiac. Fincher’s behind-the-scenes concept imitates Citizen Kane’s visual and aural aesthetic to no purpose. He neglects the Shakespearean scope that Orson Welles brought to the Citizen Kane project. Citizen Kane was a game-changer — it’s what birthed film noir among other innovations. But Fincher’s movies always distort film noir.
Consider: Fincher specializes in movies about serial killers (Se7en, Gone Girl, Zodiac) and sociopaths (The Social Network, Panic Room, the TV series House of Cards). Fincher’s twisted, sycophantic, careerist logic explains this film’s political confusion, annoyingly in sync with today’s political chaos. (Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane script was originally titled “American,” which might have worked here, though maybe too ambiguous for contemporary Hollywood nihilists.)
By heroizing Mankiewicz’s drunken, egomaniacal antagonism toward the studio bosses who opposed Upton Sinclair, Fincher angles his film to flatter Hollywood’s arrogant political sensibilities. (Asked “Why aren’t you contributing to the anti–Upton Sinclair fund?” Mankiewicz answers, “I don’t like being told which side I’m already on.”) Cosseting Mankiewicz’s personal eccentricity fits a style-auteur like Fincher who touches on social crises but remains politically naïve and insensitive. Mank does not explore the film industry’s political stances so much as it justifies political indifference, celebrating the glib fascism of Hollywood’s elite.
And the film gets worse as it avoids psychology. Fincher refuses to discern between Mankiewicz’s betrayal of his close friend (actress Marion Davies) in his Citizen Kane script (which scandalized Davies’s relationship with publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst) for his own peculiar self-satisfaction. Fincher comes down on the side of Mankiewicz’s sadomasochism just as he exploited villainy in Se7en, Zodiac, Gone Girl, and The Social Network.
Yes, The Social Network, that sleek hagiography of Mark Zuckerberg as a Harvard-trained sadist, was Fincher’s first pass at the sociopathy he glamorizes in Mank. Bullying is the through line in Fincher’s filmography. Mank alienated me from the moment Fincher showed Mankiewicz’s gang of New York smart-asses lording their egos over Joseph von Sternberg in a studio story conference. For the sake of mere sarcasm, the scene’s upmanship contradicted the fact of Von Sternberg’s sophistication. This ignorance of art history further indicts the entire film.
Peter Bogdanovich brought humane sensitivity to the contentious legend behind Citizen Kane in his 2001 film The Cat’s Meow (featuring Kirsten Dunst’s astonishingly empathetic characterization of Marion Davies; whereas in Mank Amanda Seyfried plays the beleaguered actress as a sweetheart victim). Bogdanovich’s screenwriter, Steven Peros, revealed both vanity and deep insecurity among Hollywood titans. He also avoided Mank’s teeth-achingly sassy dialogue and the incessant repetition of legendary Hollywood quotes (starting with Mankiewicz’s siren call to his East Coast buddies: “Come at once — there are millions to be made and your only competition is idiots”).
Quoting witticisms already well known to every film buff is the same as name-dropping, a sign of Millennial triteness where nothing is sacred except one’s own ego. Fincher even has Mankiewicz quote Goebbels (“If you keep telling people something untrue loud and long enough, they’re apt to believe it.”) It’s another sign of Fincher’s sneaky admiration of fascists. Fincher glosses the reality of Hollywood’s creative businessmen and peddles a self-pitying myth.