“There was always the feeling that you were in the presence of thwarted violence,” Orson Welles once said of the Hollywood hand he hired to help him with the screenplay of his first feature film. “It was this thrashing of some magnificent creature, some beached creature. You didn’t know what it was because you had never seen one of those before. It was Mank.”
David Fincher’s new film attempts to wrestle that magnificent, beached creature onto the screen. Mank casts Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz and begins as the regularly pickled, freshly wounded writer gets down to down on the screenplay he calls The American. Gifted by RKO Picture with complete creative control and final cut of his debut directorial effort, Welles (played in the film by Tom Burke) wanted a story of grand sweep, a statement on the heights and hubris of ludicrous wealth, and the unchecked power that comes with it, in U.S. society. For the script, Welles and Mankiewicz took inspiration from the life William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), the publishing magnate who infamously used his newspapers to exact inky revenge on those who dared to defy him.
Mank alternates between Mankiewicz ensconced in a rustic, remote cottage, bed-bound and briefly dried out, toiling on the pages that would become Citizen Kane and his misadventures in Hollywood several years earlier, when he rankled studio brass, distantly agitated for the election of activist author Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye, in the briefest of cameos) to the governorship of California, and acted as a waggish foil to Hearst’s guests at his palatial estate. The structure of the film is a tamed version of the fractured narrative employed in Citizen Kane, and Fincher similarly apes the touchstone classic in look and feel, with stark black-and-white cinematography (shot by Erik Messerschmidt) and a crashingly dramatic score (a characteristically stellar effort by the team of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross). Fincher is ostentatious in his ambition, meticulously crafting a film that is insistently, floridly cinematic. It never flags in announcing itself as a capital-M movie.
All that full-throttle craft can’t disguise the pesky problem that Mank doesn’t have anything clear, cogent, or insightful to say about its protagonist or the peculiar business that provided his paycheck. It’s a clattering bag of ruefully admiring history and tedious conjecture, acted out by performers who adopt the snappiness of bygone line deliveries without the layers of winking wisdom that made them work back in the day. Oldman is too at home in overheated emoting to take too much umbrage with his work in the title role, but other portrayals in the film are helplessly hollowed out by the haphazard application of antiquated acting technique. As Marion Davies, paramour of Hearst and obvious model for Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane, Amanda Seyfried comes close to striking the right balance of colorful affectation and grounded humanity. To my eye, only Lily Collins, as a steno brought in as an aide to Mankiewicz, actually finds her way to a person within the patter.
I suspect Fincher felt he had material that was bold and original, an echo of and tribute to the groundbreaking film Welles presided over nearly eighty years ago. Instead, Mank feels remarkably conventional at its core, a standard biopic with grander, gaudier dressing. No matter how concertedly Fincher applies his slick and sensuous trappings, I just feel like I’ve seen one of these before.