Dir. David Fincher. Starring Gary Oldman, Sam Troughton, Tom Pelphrey
Thank God it finally happened. It took until he was near sixty years old to get to this point, but there is no longer any way for us to understand David Fincher as a cool director. There’s a subspecies of movie guy for whom I imagine this is a great shame; some of them have Ringer podcasts or write for the New York Times. There is a fascination with the specificity of Fincher’s craft, the way he runs his actors through take after take to get the right look, the right feel. The comparisons to Hitchcock come out for this technical perfectionism, although no one ever seems to reach for Bresson or Beatty, just to name two other directors who liked to rack up takes. That’s because Hitchcock, like Fincher, was cool. For this subspecies of movie guy, Hitchcock’s obsessive tics and Fincher’s obsessive tics, borne out in the obsessive actions of their characters, are iridescent with coolness. But what does a specimen of this group do with Mank, a movie about a man whose midlife crisis happens to smack up against his job writing the screenplay for Citizen Kane? There is nothing cool about this movie. There’s no murder. There’s no sex. There’s no crime (at least not, y’know, crime), nor is there some kind of seething, catchy story. We are far from “Wait, so you’re telling me Brad Pitt and Ed Norton…” and “Oh, that’s what was in the box.”
Instead, there are two significant flashbacks in the first fourteen minutes of the movie which make each previous plotline feel like a hiccup and which I confess to never having seen the like of in a Hitchcock movie. There’s a subplot about fake news that feels cribbed from the same corner of the leaking brain that thrills at “Guys. It’s time for some game theory.” The climactic moment of the movie is a drunken rant delivered at a dinner party in which Herman Mankiewicz (Oldman) compares William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) to Don Quixote and his hangers-on to other characters, which I guess would be more interesting if we hadn’t all just seen 115 minutes in which we figure out how William Randolph Hearst and his hangers-on were turned into the characters of Citizen Kane, or maybe it would be more interesting if it were half again more intelligible. No, Mank is not cool, and unfortunately it’s not good either.
Before anything else, Mank is a movie that is shot in black-and-white by people who seem totally unable to handle black-and-white photography. (It’s not as if a modern movie shot in black-and-white is some kind of impossibility; all you have to do is look at the stunning collaborations of Pawel Pawlikowski and Lukasz Zal, or even Alfonso Cuaron shooting for himself in Roma, to see how it can be done far better than this, like this is an art form instead of a gimmick. The primary influence on the cinematography and lighting appears to have been that Janusz Kaminski-style addiction to light flooding through windows or the sun peeking through branches, like everyone is living in California via Minority Report. I’ll be shocked if Erik Messerschmidt doesn’t end up with an Oscar nomination.) Maybe it was Fincher’s precision that led him to want those fake and totally identical imperfections blipping onto the screen. You know, the ones you get when physical film is damaged…even though this was shot on digital. It’s such a self-evidently dumb idea that it singlehandedly proves the sycophancy of people in the industry; someone, somewhere, had this stupid idea, and no one, anywhere, was able to challenge it. It’s the kind of thing that you do if you think that’s what old movies are “like,” which is why the movie that Mank reminds me of most is The Artist. Like The Artist, Mank is using signifiers of what “old movies” are like in order to play to a kind of nostalgia or information that the casual audience doesn’t really have. Citizen Kane turns eighty next year. It is not on Netflix. I don’t like to guess what the people who have Netflix for Stranger Things and Tiger King are watching, but it’s certainly no guarantee that Netflix’s Mank viewers know a lot about Citizen Kane. There’s a repeated line that Mank really likes about people believing that Kong is ten stories high or that Mary Pickford is a forty-year-old virgin. When you watch this movie, with its strange choices in appearance and false historicity, you have to wonder if Fincher is trolling you. Is he inviting us to excoriate his own movie for its fakeness? If so…what kind of purpose could that possibly serve?
The screenplay is one blunder after another as well. An unending stream of dad jokes and bad puns from Mank. An unending stream of hearing the word “Mank,” which is just odd enough that it takes on meme quality after a few exclamations. Situations that we have seen all too often. For one, Mank gets mouthy about a letter that Mrs. Alexander (Lily Collins) is reading about her husband, and of course we know that it’s going to tell her that her husband has been badly wounded or captured or killed or whatnot, and we watch him screw up and realize, “Me and my big mouth!” For two, that endless monologue about Hearst as Quixote. And most of all, the Gumpification. I don’t know how much of this screenplay belongs to Jack Fincher and how much belongs to Eric Roth, but a scene in which Orson Welles (Tom Burke) throws some stuff around a room in a fit of rage and Mank says, “Yeah, that would be a great thing to put in the movie!” feels like the guy who made sure Forrest Gump was in every moment and situation from Elvis on, and pretended a series of coincidences had some kind of profound philosophical meaning in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
If there’s one story element that really does work, it’s that aside midway through the story about the California gubernatorial race that Mank believes he lost for Upton Sinclair by getting mouthy with Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley) about not contributing to Frank Merriam’s campaign. (I was going to write that it’s the one thing that works, but that doesn’t give nearly enough credit to Kingsley or Arliss Howard’s performances as Thalberg and L.B. Mayer, respectively. Those two are anchors for this movie that wants solid villains and finds them, unsurprisingly, among the studio executives.) It’s all a little pat, still, down to the way that Mank’s colleague who shot some negative ads for the studio about Sinclair ends up shooting himself because he’s so guilty and also has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. There’s a lot of Eric Roth here too, regardless of what words might belong to him; one thing leads to another with flowchart specificity and a comment that Mank makes to Thalberg turns into an organized campaign done pro bono by Hollywood which hands California to Merriam. It’s also the one time in the movie that we get a sense of Mank as a real failure. There’s some sadsack boozer in him even when he’s punning his lips off, or maybe especially when he’s doing that. Watching him run is like watching a middle-aged man who doesn’t take exercise run. His married life is so empty that Poor Sara (Tuppence Middleton) is a punchline even when she’s excoriating her husband about the nickname. Anyone can be a failure on those fronts though, and maybe more of us are than aren’t. You have to work to be the accidental smooth-brainchild of this act of political activism that sets back your preferred political beliefs, and here Mank is given an opportunity to do just that. The sadness is more palpable here, and that election night ball where Mank walks into the lion’s den and promptly bets a bunch of money that Sinclair will win when he’s already hopelessly behind is, if not exactly rousing, an effective statement of the man’s idealism and preference for self-destruction.
This is neither here nor there as a critique of Mank, but it’s something I think about when I’m watching some just okay movie and someone brings up a great one: why would you invite your audience to think about how they’d rather watch a movie that’s better than yours? (My favorite example of this is an offhand appearance of Young Mr. Lincoln in The Edge of Seventeen, but there are lots of examples and you can choose your own!) The frequent invocations of the movie that will become Citizen Kane, the references to a screenplay better than any that Herman Mankiewicz had ever written before, the repeated ways in which Mank’s inspiration comes to him from the outside world at the expense of any ability to cook up, y’know, fiction: it definitely made want to turn this off and watch Citizen Kane again instead. You can count the number of movies on a couple hands which wouldn’t suffer from a Kane comparison, so I’m not trying to say that no one can possibly mention that picture without having their own shut off. But what stands out is how the things which made Citizen Kane great are basically ignored or malformed in Mank, a movie which couldn’t exist without it. Where one has Orson Welles giving an extraordinarily empathetic performance, the other has Gary Oldman sort of puttering around vacantly and regretting that he blew the dandelion of an idea in Thalberg’s mind. Where one has Dorothy Comingore bearing an increasingly humiliated and browning patch of soul, the other has Amanda Seyfried doing twirls with the same Northeastern non-rhotic accent that Jennifer Lawrence rode to critical acclaim last decade. (I thought we all agreed that being from Brooklyn wasn’t actually a personality when Girls was on the air.) Where one has Gregg Toland’s masterful cinematography, the other has Erik Messerschmidt stuck on creating hazes and working out a moving camera that they could have gotten from Thomas Schlammé without anyone noticing differently. You sort of wonder who was first to lose the plot.