The theme of monkeys runs through “Mank,” most pointedly when William Randolph Hearst (he of newspaper fame) explains the story of the monkey and the organ grinder to Herman Mankiewicz, screenwriter for Orson Welles’ classic “Citizen Kane” and the protagonist of David Fincher’s (“Seven” 1995, “The Social Network” 2010) latest film. “Do you know if you are the organ grinder or the monkey?”, Hearst (Charles Dance) asks the audacious, alcohol-fueled, larger-than-life Mank, for once at a loss for words.
The parable illustrates the tension between independence, personified by Mank (Gary Oldman, even better than in his 2017 Oscar-winning performance as Churchill), and control from without—whether by capitalism, overbearing bosses, politics, the media, or the allure of Hollywood.
“Mank” is ostensibly about writing the script for “Citizen Kane,” the 1941 film some consider to be the best ever made and historically understood as the product of one auteur—namely, Orson Welles. Welles is here a minor character, portrayed by Tom Burke, who looks and sounds the part, but doesn’t act it persuasively. Although one can appreciate “Mank” as an historical treatment of the origins of the famous script and of the era, the film is in essence the story of one man’s struggle to preserve his identity—as a person and as a writer–in a world that seems committed to stripping him of it.
Fincher’s film operates on another level as an ode to old Hollywood, akin to Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood.’
Fincher’s film operates on another level as an ode to old Hollywood, akin to Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood” (which won last year’s Oscar for Best Picture). The characters talk as they did in ‘30s movies, with quick wit and repartee. Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, Hearst’s real-life mistress and a presence at Hearst’s San Simeon castle, whose acting career the newspaper tycoon sponsored, has a patter reminiscent of Carole Lombard. Seyfried gives Davies an emotional center and self-knowledge beyond her blond celebrity exterior, a depth Davies earned in an earlier life as a Brooklyn chorus girl. Other paeans to Hollywood include over-the-top scenes evoking the films of that era, as when MGM chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) races down a studio corridor barking out rapid-fire shibboleths on economics and the morality of filmmaking to Mank and his brother while signing a paper thrust in front of him without reading it or breaking stride.
Rife with characters whose names most viewers won’t recognize, “Mank” will delight those who do: besides Welles, Hearst, Mayer and Davies, there’s a major role for Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg, and shout-outs to Hollywood legends Ben Hecht and David O. Selznick, among others. Three female figures, along with Davies, emerge as important: a stenographer, a German housekeeper with a Holocaust story to tell, and Mank’s long-suffering wife, referred to throughout as Poor Sara. Unlike Davies, they are not Hollywood names, and likely not all are based on real people. Their role is to keep the attention on the writer Mank, holed up in 1940 on a ranch in the Mojave Desert and immobilized with a broken leg, rather than on Welles, Hearst, or the other famous men of the time.
Numerous flashbacks, that start in 1934, are both the story of Mank’s “real life” and the material for the script he is writing, what will become “Citizen Kane.” Fincher uses onscreen typewriter-banged-out words that precede each earlier scene to make clear the locale, date, and even that one is watching a “[FLASHBACK]”. The emerging script is viewed with concern by those who have commissioned it; Mank is told that the script is jumbled, that it jumps around in time—it’s not the traditional chronological narrative. That description fits not only the script Mank is writing—and which the audience sees only in the flashbacks to his life—but also Fincher’s movie and, peeling back another layer, “Citizen Kane.”
Not satisfied with echoing ‘Citizen Kane,’ and putting forth a narrative that minimizes the iconic Welles, Fincher adds big scenes and big themes…
Not satisfied with echoing “Citizen Kane,” and putting forth a narrative that minimizes the iconic Welles, Fincher adds big scenes and big themes: of Hollywood corruption; the California governor’s race of 1934 that pitted muckraker/socialist Upton Sinclair against a business-backed Republican; the weaponizing of film—propaganda posing as newsreel—to bend the public’s will (cinema goers see the “hobo invasion” of California, rather than Latinos on the southern U.S. border); the over-reach of the over-rich amid the Great Depression. At the same time, Fincher celebrates the explosive growth of the film industry, a not-so-subtle reference to the out-sized influence of today’s social media.
Mank is an unlikely hero. He’s unattractive, alcoholic, arrogant, pushy and acerbic. At a lavish, costumed dinner party at Hearst castle, he breaks a crystal wine glass trying to get attention and vomits on the floor next to the table. Yet he represents the last and best attempt to both be part of Hollywood and not succumb to it. How far will he go to satirize Hearst, Davies and the others? Will he cave to those who want him to draw in his horns, or risk his livelihood? Can he be part of an unjust economic engine and be his own “self”?
Fincher’s character study is set in a “jumble” of time periods, settings, movements, people (you’ll never figure out who they all are) and ideas. It’s an enormous project, and it mostly succeeds.
Director: David Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Arliss Howard, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Ferdinand Kingsley, Lily Collins
Runtime: 131 minutes
Available: Netflix; for other sources in the future, see JustWatch here.