As the opening titles appear, with a rolling list of the cast members, as you see that everything’s filmed in black and white, as you hear the imposing background music, you are immediately aware that this is a film with aspirations to be like the old Hollywood films that “they” don’t make any more. A film like Citizen Kane, say.
This is a film about Herman J. Mankiewicz. A lot of film people, from Pauline Kael downwards, care a great deal about whether Orson Welles wrote Citizen Kane on his own, as a collaboration with Mankiewicz or whether Mankiewicz wrote it all on his own. Mank offers its answer to a question that most people outside the film industry don’t really care about.
This is a David Fincher film, which means that it looks marvellous. It also has a very cursory plot. The black and white cinematography may be an important signifier, but it doesn’t really make the film any better – more the reverse Similarly, while there is a lot of use of flashback – presumably because Citizen Kane used flashbacks of different unreliable narrators to great effect – the flashbacks serve little purpose here other than to inform us that this is an Important Film.
The film starts with Manciewicz hobbling into a remote ranch house on crutches. He is to stay there with an English secretary and German housekeeper until he comes up with a full script within 60 days. Officially, there is an alcohol ban in the house, but Orson Welles has smuggled in a cabinet full of bottles, especially for him. He’s supposed to only drink at the end of the day but he looks pissed already.
We occasionally flash back to Mank’s transition from critic to screenwriter. Some of the dialogue does awkward heavy lifting for the exposition (“you must be Perelman – do you prefer to be called Sidney or S.J.?”). Mank regrets being drawn into a media campaign against the socialist Upton Sinclair who was standing to be governor of California and had a serious chance of winning. The real Mank had no sympathy for socialism and was not involved in the media campaign in any way.
My main problem with Mank, though, is that it doesn’t really contain any characters who we care about or even notice much. This means for much of the time, we don’t feel emotionally invested, and are half waiting for each scene to end so that something interesting can happen. When Mank comes into conflict with newspaper boss William Randolph Hearst and his entourage, for example, you find it difficult to want either side to succeed even after he pukes on their carpet.
But the main question at the end of the film is “What was the point of that?” I know that film makers may be interested in the minutia of making films, but the rest of us have got lives to lead. So we mainly just see a group of uninteresting people doing uninteresting things. And that’s before the inevitable comparisons with Citizen Kane, where Mank is on a hiding to nothing from the start.
The personal history of Mankiewicz also feels peripheral to contemporary developments in society that we are shown. The Depression hits, and producer Louis B Mayer tries to get everyone to accept a pay cut, Meanwhile Mank just drifts along in his secluded world where the biggest problem is finding the next drink. The script of “Kane” is portrayed as being an act of rebellion, but more to settle a personal score than to strike a blow for justice.
I’m reminded of a friend talking about seeing Leaving Las Vegas: “if I want to watch someone drinking themselves to death, I’ll stay at home with my boyfriend” (that relationship didn’t last much longer). And to be honest, there are rather too many scenes of Mank drunkenly complaining while making the occasional witty riposte instead of finishing the screenplay. All up until he finishes the screenplay.
It really is difficult feeling any empathy – or any real emotions of note – for most of the characters. Maybe its because Mank is pissed for most of the time, so we rarely get a glimpse of anything that we grasp hold of. The film is relatively devoid of feeling or excitement. But there are some well shot scenes and some of the acting and music is impressive. Will that do?