It's ain't Welles but it ain't bad
There is for me no harder sell than a movie about someone who makes movies. I understand we’re all a little movie-mad, which intrinsic interest guarantees people will at least consider paying to see a movie about people who make them. But to me it’s kind of an unfair head start, like making a movie about Jesus, or pornography — if you satisfy most of the intended audience’s desire with the subject alone, there’s not much motivation to do anything original or interesting with it.
So I got a little antsy when, twelve minutes into Mank, the new David Fincher movie (written by his dad, Jack Fincher — considering the subject I guess I better make sure to credit him) now playing on Netflix, we’re shown Charles Lederer being introduced at MGM to Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, George S. Kaufman, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, and S.J. Perelman — which is the corniest possible way of introducing them to us (“Do you prefer Sidney or S.J.” OMG).
Not only were they dangling boldface names in front of me — they were screenwriters’ names. Mank is in fact mainly about a screenwriter — Herman J. Mankiewicz, co- or sole author of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, depending on who you believe — and writers are also a dangerous topic for movies because for one thing, they’re written by writers, who are keenly aware of what an unglamorous trade they’re in and so often attempt to make it look as interesting as cowpunching or bullfighting. (There is, mild spoiler, a scene where Welles yells at Mankiewicz and smashes some bottles, and Mankiewicz starts taking notes and muttering “that’s what we need when Susan leaves Kane — an act of purging violence.” Observe, peons — inspiration!) Also, the writer-hero tends to talk the way he writes, which is kind of like if Jim Varney went around in real life acting like Ernest P. Worrell. (Maybe he did, I didn’t really follow his career, but I still think it would be weird.) Oh, and nine times out of ten the writer-hero is also the voice of reason and morality.
Mank’s Mankiewicz has all these characteristics. He produces puns, aperçus and sallies pretty much at will, and when he drinks to excess — which he does mostly in flashbacks, as the plot has him laid up with a fractured leg on a low-alcohol regimen enforced by John Houseman so he can ghostwrite a script for Welles — he generates some very heavy in vino veritas stuff, showing himself a voice of reason and morality in a world full of rotten unreasonables and immoralists.
But he doesn’t really do much about his R and M except drink and witticize until Welles’ need for a competent Hollywood script gives him a means. Mank’s big trick is to mirror the flashback structure of Mankiewicz’s Citizen Kane script — which circuitous, concentric approach Mankiewicz claims is necessary to reveal the true meaning of his subject — and apply it to Mank himself.
What we learn about him is that Mankiewicz’s wisecracks are not only his Hollywood bread and butter but also his spiritual soothing balm; deep down he finds working for (and socializing with, which is part of the job) Louie B. Mayer and his backer William Randolph Hearst repulsive because they are terrible people, as proven beyond dispute by their propaganda smear tactics that sabotage Upton Sinclair’s socialist campaign for California governor. Irving Thalberg (yes, he’s in this too — so’s Selznick!) interrupts his exposition duties a moment to make a solid (if writerly) assessment of Mank: “When I come to work I don’t consider it slumming. I don’t use humor to keep myself above the fray, and I always go to the mat for what I believe in... how formidable people like you might be if they actually gave at the office.”
So socialism, you might say, is Mankiewicz’s Rosebud: The Kane script is what he really feels about the rotten capitalist system to which he’s been feeding his talent and honor, and in finally summoning the guts to say it even when all his buddy-pals inside the machine tell him he’ll never work again if he does (“Nerve is about all I have left,” he says late in the film) he finds his redemption. And after fighting drama queen Welles (whose derogation Fincher hinted at in a promotional interview for his film) to have his name put on the script, he also gets an Oscar! Redemption plus a prize!
Well, it’s a Hollywood story, after all — one that even the villainous Louis Mayer would have appreciated. To begrudge it seems ungenerous, though I will say that by inviting comparison via its structure with the actual Citizen Kane does Mank no favors; Mankiewicz may have stuck it to The Man, but the finished film (which plays a lot different from the script) aims and hits a lot higher.
But if it ain’t Welles, it still ain’t bad. Fincher keeps the thing moving and his style restrained, wisely avoiding Welles' eye-popping panache. Something else that usually bugs me — black-and-white cinematography employed anytime after color film became ubiquitous — is so well-done by Erik Messerschmidt (who comes from television!) that one forgets to notice, except for (I thought I detected) a subliminal reminder that we’re among people who manufacture black-and-white realities for a living. In a similar way, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross make the 40s-flavored music just weird enough — either more angular or more droning than the real thing — to avoid mere mimicry, and also juice the tension between reality and fantasy (the sinister throb under Hearst telling Mank the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey is a great example).
Who knows if Gary Oldman really sounds like Mankiewicz, but it’s believable: he hits both the weisenheimer and the aesthete notes. If you’re going to make a guy sound like he writes, it helps to have an actor who can radiate intelligence. He does a great drunk too. Everyone else does the best they can with their hey-look-we’re-famous-people-from-40s-Hollywood dialogue, but rising above are Arliss Howard, whose Mayer shows the self-absorption appropriate to a world-class bullshit artist; Tom Burke, who has Welles’ brio and is properly shocking when he loses his cool; Jamie McShane as a low-watt patsy who poignantly finds himself without a reason to live; and Charles Dance, who makes Hearst engaging and interesting and only then lets you know he’s also a scumbag.
Aside from Amanda Seyfried’s Marion Davies — the old-fashioned brassy Brooklyn blonde thing, but muted enough to make clear how she could be satisfied to live as a concubine — women aren’t given much to do, and the addition of a young Brit lady assistant played by Lily Collins reminded me so much of the relationship between Oldman’s Churchill and his assistant played by Lily James in Darkest Hour that I wonder if Oldman has something about it in his contract.