Lushly photographed, joyously performative and woefully lacking in historical context, director David Fincher’s “Mank” is a compelling but deeply flawed portrayal of the writing process behind Orson Welles’ classic film “Citizen Kane.”
Released on Netflix Dec. 4 following a brief theatrical run, “Mank” stars Gary Oldman (“Darkest Hour,” “The Laundromat”) as cantankerous alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, or Mank, who wrote “Citizen Kane” with Orson Welles in 1940. Using a narrative style similar to “Kane,” the film focuses on Mank as he begins writing, dispersing flashbacks to prior moments in his life throughout.
The film’s depiction of Mank’s career as a frequently uncredited writer brought on to tweak scripts prior to production (“The Wizard of Oz” may be his most famous uncredited writing contribution) is highly entertaining. Oldman is in peak form, a heroically cynical drunk whirlwind, slurring his way through 1930s Hollywood in the flashbacks and chewing scenery in the screenwriting scenes, where he dictates his masterpiece from bed as he recovers from a broken leg.
The film’s script, written by Fincher’s late father Jack Fincher, is clearly pro-Mank and anti-Orwell in the “who wrote Citizen Kane?” debate. Still, if the film had been an audacious recreation of old Hollywood that promoted Pauline Kael’s thoroughly debunked theory, it’d be a solid return to cinema for Fincher, whose last feature film was 2014’s “Gone Girl.”
Unfortunately, this isn’t the case. In its depictions of Hollywood stars, producers, directors, writers and most specifically Metro-Goldwyn Mayer executive Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Fincher’s latest attempts to relitigate ‘30s Hollywood’s role in right-wing politics erase their worst actions in that period.
Though the film’s central narrative is the writing of “Citizen Kane,” a large portion of the flashbacks concern journalist Upton Sinclair’s failed run for California governor, as MGM produces smear ads edited to look like newsreels to hurt his campaign.
MGM executives Mayer and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) don’t want a leftist governor, and Mank’s encounters with them and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) — the inspiration for “Kane’s” titular character — demonstrate the relationship between greed and the media explored in “Kane.”
Also informing the script is Mank’s friendship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s lover and the one to officially introduce the two. Seyfried is splendid in the role, putting on a great ‘30s affectation and wearing her heart on her sleeve, beaming at the compliments and scoffing at the “smarter than she looks” comments she receives.
Where Fincher’s film fails is in its depiction of Hollywood’s reaction to the rise of Adolf Hitler. The topic spans only two scenes in the film, but it’s the film’s biggest misstep. In the first scene, Mank gets too drunk at one of MGM’s fancy parties. Soon, he, Davies, Mayer and others are cracking wise about the young German leader’s goofy mustache and strong accent, when Mank gets tired of the fun and interjects, “I hear they’ve just opened their first concentration camps.”
It’s an accurate depiction of Mank’s early awareness of the Nazi’s dangers, but the topic is dropped soon after. It’s brought up only once more, when Mank’s German nurse informs one of his transcribers of his abandoned screenplay “The Mad Dog of Europe” and his sponsoring a hundred German Jewish people’s escape from the Nazis (including her family).
On paper, this seems innocent. The topic was addressed, it made the Hollywood elite look dismissive and ignorant, and Mank’s noble actions were documented. But there’s more to the story, and Fincher’s omissions don’t just weaken his depiction of Hollywood executives’ failings in this area. They also muddy the moral ties he draws between MGM’s financial relationship with Hearst and their unrelated misinformation campaign against Sinclair.
For one thing, Mank’s screenplay wasn’t just abandoned. Here’s what the real-life Louis Mayer said about it, taken from an excerpt of Ben Urwand’s book “The Collaboration: Hollywood’s pact with Hitler”:
“We have interests in Germany; I represent the picture industry here in Hollywood; we have exchanges there; we have terrific income in Germany and, as far as I am concerned, this picture will never be made.”
One could argue that “Mank” is set just before the worst of the aforementioned article’s events, and that’s true. It’s also true many Jewish executives were concerned about angering the Nazis and causing more harm to Jewish people in and outside of Germany. But the most important truth, and one the film omits, is that Hollywood executives catered to Nazis, and some of them did it for financial gains.
According to Urwand’s book, these relationships began in 1933. “Mank” shows sequences across the ‘30s, yet there’s no mention of the pre-production editing of scripts to match Nazi guidelines, nor the head of MGM’s German offices, Frits Strengholt. In 1937, Strengholt divorced his Jewish wife following a request from Germany’s Propaganda Ministry. According to Urwand, “she ended up in a concentration camp.”
Urwand’s book has received criticism, but his arguments are compelling, and the issue with Fincher’s film isn’t its stance on these issues, but its failure to portray them.
There’s a lot to be said about the performances in “Mank,” the phenomenal score by Nine Inch Nails, the excellent production values and authentically recreated black-and-white photography. Beyond that, the film’s depiction of Welles and misrepresentation of the scriptwriting process are fascinating choices as well.
But it’s hard to care about any of it when Fincher has ignored the most direct relationships that shaped Hollywood. MGM’s effective propaganda against Sinclair and Mank’s disdain for Hearst are the linchpins of “Mank,” but Fincher picked the wrong right-wing propaganda machine tied to the American movie industry to focus on.
“Mank,” rated R, is streaming on Netflix.