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I never thought one could care so much about a sled.

Movie

Mank
(2020)

 

David Fincher probably deserves due credit for doing right by dad and getting Jack’s screenplay into production. Even if it rather waywardly took him more than two decades. Perhaps the length of time is a clue, because for all the meticulousness of Mank’s production, there’s negligible sense that Fincher’s fired up by the material. Indeed, you’re likely to come away from this rather flaccid picture convinced that what Citizen Kane needed wasn’t so much a nostalgically positioned sled as a headless corpse. Or any tell-tale Fincherian sign of murderous despair.

Because Mank isn’t really very good. If you’re going to dive into Classic Hollywood, you want someone calling the shots who is clearly enthused by the era. Someone like the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!) or Joe Dante (Matinee). Fincher’s so utterly impassive, detached and clinical that he constantly underpins the woeful absence of narrative trajectory in Jack’s screenplay. And his stylistic choices are an utter dog. Of course, he wants to muster the black and white of Citizen Kane’s making, but in 2.20:1 digital? And no amount of tinkering in a forlorn attempt to garnish Mank with filmic sheen, grain and dust is going to make it other than anaemic, lethargic, depthless screen bleach.

I know Fincher’s a big Chinatown fan (he recorded a commentary track for the Blu-ray release), and I thought I could detect an attempt on his part to imitate that film’s deceptively casual trajectory. But Chinatown is a mystery. As long as that part is clearly in place, you have something for the viewer to invest in. The best Mank can offer is a series of flashbacks leading to a reveal of why Herman J Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, much too old for the two-decades-younger writer) has the knives out for William Randolph Hearst (a magnificently skeletal Charles Dance). Hearst being, of course, the inspiration for Charles Foster Kane.

Along the very languorous way, we’re treated to frequently clumsy introductions to many of the big names of the period, some standing out better than others. Arliss Howard is superb as Louis B Mayer; it’s the kind of part that ought to lead to a career second wind, of the “Why didn’t we think of using him before?” variety. Tom Pelphrey is thoroughly eclipsed as Mank’s brother Joseph (perhaps appropriate, since in career terms, he far eclipsed Herman). Amanda Seyfried is exactly as radiant as she needs to be as Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies, and her scenes with Mank tend to find the picture at its most engaging. Sam Troughton makes less of an impression than he should as John Houseman.

Lily Collins gets the utterly thankless chaperone role as Mank’s secretary, complete with a thunderously clichéd missing-in-action boyfriend subplot. Tuppence Middleton fares better, but hers is still your long-suffering wifey, if uber-self-aware. Another subplot, straining in its attempts to be relevant, concerns a studio-mandated smear campaign against a prospective governor. It’s banal stuff, right up to the point where Mank’s friend blows his brains out after predictably not giving up all the bullets.

Much of the prior discussion pertaining to the production focussed on how much it would bear out Pauline Kael’s discredited 1971 Raising Kane article, particularly since it was known Jack took his cues from her position that Welles stole the kudos for what was entirely Mank’s work. The forensic analysis determined this wrong (the first two drafts were Mank’s, and Welles was mindful in interviews to affirm just how intrinsic his writer was to the finished picture; it isn’t coincidental that the director’s best film also nurses a deeply rooted cinematic core, and that Welles’ other pictures were almost exclusively based on existing material). Fincher claimed he ameliorated his father’s position in favour of something more balanced, but you’d be hard pressed to discern that from the finished film.

Mostly because Welles (Tom Burke) is hardly in it. So there’s none of the writer and wunderkind thrashing out the story together, or Mank working off Welles’ rough script. Mank is holed up in the heat, dying for booze and receiving periodic cajoling from Houseman, or Welles, or nursey. All of which is fairly tepid. When Welles does finally visit, it’s a shot in the arm. But too late. The last half hour of Mank is splendidly arresting, but it isn’t enough. Mank demands credit from a reluctant Orson (“It’s the best thing I’ve ever written”), and this segues into the picture’s highlight scene as Mank turns up sloshed to one of the regular parties at Hearst’s castle. He proceeds to expertly character assassinate his host in the form of a pitch, to the accompaniment of an increasingly empty dining hall.

If anything else here had been half as electric, Fincher might have had something on his hands, but you have to go back to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to find him so at a loss with a project (and even that can at least boast to being a curiosity). Fincher denies us Welles contribution to Mank’s screenplay, making the entire piece seem dubiously disingenuous when it ends with Herman claiming he would have claimed sole credit had he gone to the Oscars (Welles’ “Mank, you can kiss my half” says more about the humour with which Orson approached the matter).

Mostly, though, I’m not that invested in whether Welles has been hard done by over the credit debate. It’s as important to a fictional movie as whether Salieri was so jealous of Mozart that he sent him to his grave. What’s important is that a dramatic and compelling story should result. Milos Forman had one with Amadeus. Maybe there was one with The Scripts of Citizen Kane, but Fincher certainly didn’t find a way to make it work. If he wanted to scratched a Citizen Kane itch he probably should have adapted Theodore Roszak’s Flicker.

Oldman? He’s very good. And much too old. Tom Burke might have been better. Perhaps he should have played Welles and Mank. He’s serviced with some very good lines, I’ll give Jack Fincher that. On the other hand, David Fincher has no sense of how to emphasise them. The Coen Brothers would have brought them up in the mix, celebrated the actor and wordsmith. With Fincher, everything’s delivered as an unenthused drone. If Mank is a serious awards contender… Well, I wouldn’t be that surprised. It’s not like there’s going to be a welter of options, But Oscars so black and white this year doesn’t seem terribly likely.

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