Nora Ephron famously quipped, “Everything is copy.” The phrase is innocuous enough until you stop and think about its meaning: the writer turned filmmaker used everything in her life, including her failed marriage to journalist Carl Bernstein, as material for her career. I can’t imagine Bernstein being too wild about her approach, but Ephron simply did not give a shit. Perhaps Herman J. Mankiewicz, the subject of David Fincher’s latest feature Mank, inspired Ephron’s attitude. Everything was copy to Mank, to the chagrin of his friends and employers, although Fincher keeps Mank’s motivations obscure. This is a strange film, one that benefits from knowledgeable viewers, to the point where novices may ultimately watch the credits in annoyed confusion.
The screenplay by Jack Fincher, David’s late father, bounces back and forth through time. Like Citizen Kane, the film Mankiewicz co-wrote with Orson Welles, there is an anchoring incident followed by a series of flashbacks. It is 1940, and Mank (Gary Oldman) works on his script while convalescing from a car accident. Mank agreed on ninety days of writing, but Welles (Tom Burke) only gives him sixty. His script is based on William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), who was Mank’s friend in the 1930s. It is cinematically gto depict the writing process, so we mostly see Mank ingratiate himself with Hearst and other powerful men like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard). He also takes a liking to Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s mistress. All these figures find their way into Mank’s draft, one that takes traditional movie storytelling in a strange new direction.
David Fincher scrapped this project for decades because studios wanted him to shoot in color. It was the right decision: along with cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, who worked with Fincher on the Netflix series Mindhunter, he evokes the inky black and white photography that defined the period. Many images and sequences are in conversation with Citizen Kane: the climax happens at a long dinner table that is a major Kane image, while an election night rally recalls the dramatic campaign speech scene. There are other little flourishes, like “cigarette burns” and the hiss of an old movie camera. Of course, these are all special effects, since Fincher shoots on digital cameras only.
Elections and California politics are the lifeblood of Mank. After he finds himself in Heart’s circle, Mank observes how Hearst and Mayer involve themselves in the 1934 California gubernatorial election. It is Republican Frank Merriam against the novelist Upton Sinclair, who was considered a left-leaning radical. Oldman’s performance is complex: Mank is a ferocious boozehound, the kind who blabs when he is drunk, but he is also a keen observer. Fincher never shows Mank rushing to his notebook, taking down every private conversation he has, nor does he even show where Mank got the inkling to write this screenplay in the first place. A lot of this film is ambiguous, sometimes frustratingly so, but that also creates an opportunity to pore over the action and make sense of its dense history.
If you have never seen Citizen Kane, it is likely that Mank will not make any sense. It is also important to have a sense of Kane’s place in the movie canon, with Welles widely considered the singular talent that brought the medium into maturity. Mank is a direct challenge to all that: like the infamous Pauline Kael essay “Raising Kane,” this film suggests that Mank deserves more credit than Welles. The election subplot only deepens that suggestion, which also requires a basic understanding of the monopolistic, tyrannical way studio heads ran the movie business (e.g. they treated writers more like indentured servants than talent). All the political chicanery and dated labor relations feeds into one basic question, one that David and Jack cannot quite bring themselves to answer.
The frustrating thing about Mank, aside from its relaxed approach toward drama and storytelling, is how Jack Fincher’s script barely addresses the juiciest conflict in the film. In the final minutes, when Mank and Welles finally confront each other, there is an argument that effectively sustained the popular imagination for nearly century. In this film, it is practically an afterthought, even a vulgarity. Jack and David would rather include another meandering subplot about a down-on-his-luck actor, or revise key relationships to the point of it becoming borderline disingenuous (I highly doubt Marion Davies was so accepting of the liberties Mank took in his initial pass).
It has been six years since David Fincher’s last feature-length film, an adaptation of a successful literary thriller. Mank is a bold shift in the opposite direction, and the sort of film Fincher should make: personal, bizarre, with few genre hallmarks. It is a minor miracle he finally made it, although even he must realize – like Herman J. Mankiewicz once did – that affection for the material is no guarantee of greater success.