by Ben Hiett
[Editor’s Note: This review contains spoilers for the Netflix film “Mank”]
“Tell the story you know.” So says movie producer John Houseman to Herman J. Mankiewicz, the titular protagonist of David Fincher’s latest film “Mank.” Fincher has crafted an intricate, subtle masterpiece of filmmaking that only gets better upon rewatch (trust me, I watched it twice). However, the point of a review like this is to help you, the reader, determine whether this movie is one that you’d enjoy watching. Therefore, in this review, I’m going to tell the story I knew after my first viewing and, in that way, hopefully convey what watching this film was like for me.
Let’s start with the story. In 1940, twenty-four-year-old filmmaking prodigy Orson Welles is given the director’s deal of a lifetime: complete creative control to make any film he wants. Hoping to make the most of this opportunity, Welles (played with ominous ambition by Tom Burke) seeks out the film industry’s best and brightest, including seasoned screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, or Mank to his friends.
Infused with an understated wit by acting veteran Gary Oldman, Mank is a middle-aged journalist turned drama critic turned screenwriter for MGM studios. Much of his life is characterized by duality: he is both a bitingly insightful critic with a subtle sense of sarcasm and a willing cog in a Hollywood characterized by petty power plays, corrupt politics, and utter hypocrisy. He is fully aware of this duality but finds himself powerless to change either the system or himself, leading to his struggles with depression and self-destructive drinking.
Enter Orson Welles, who asks Mank to help him write the screenplay for what will eventually become “Citizen Kane.” It’s unclear whether Mank fully understands the deal he’s agreeing to, which stipulates that he will not receive official credit for any of his work. After all, he has recently broken a leg in a freak car accident and is practically comatose in the hospital when Welles approaches him.
In fact, the film’s muted black-and-white cinematography and muffled sound mixing, superficially a stylistic homage to the cinema of the era, also creates an atmosphere of detachment and distance, possibly conveying Mank’s dissociation from the world around him. His tenuous grip on reality often leads to him drifting along according to the wills and dictates of others. His bedridden state when he’s hired to write the script serves as a tangible metaphor for his loss of personal agency.
However, as he begins work on the script, he comes to view his assignment as an opportunity to do something he has always been powerless to do: to speak out against the corrupt system that, for too long, has exerted control over his life. In line with this endeavor, he sets his screenwriting sights on an old acquaintance and the personal cause of his disillusionment with Hollywood: William Randolph Hearst.
Born the heir of a wealthy mining engineer, the real-life Hearst began his working career as a managing editor at the San Francisco Examiner, which his father just so happened to own. Initially a bleeding-heart idealist, he used his position to expose the corrupt practices of companies in the greater San Francisco area, including some in which his family had a financial stake.
Ever ambitious, Hearst then used his family’s wealth to purchase the failing New York Morning Journal and, over the years, transformed it into a successful nationwide newspaper chain. Along the way, he amassed a fortune of his own, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest and most influential figures of the era.
In the 1930s, a younger Mank first meets an older Hearst (Charles Dance) on the set of what is essentially a vanity project for the media mogul’s mistress, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Both men come from journalistic backgrounds, and Hearst respects Mank for his understanding of the power of the pen. The screenwriter quickly becomes a regular at the luxurious dinner parties at Hearst Castle, the sprawling estate of the media tycoon.
This respect is hardly mutual. An ever-observant critic, Mank knows who Hearst used to be and how that differs from who he is now. He’s aware of how the accumulation of wealth, social status, and power has shaped the once ambitious, idealistic young man into a hardened, self-preserving egoist. Mank primarily attends these parties to converse with Marion, who Seyfried imbues with a playful Brooklynite sassiness. Mank and her relate over being trapped within high society’ web of artifice, excess, and hypocrisy, and their mutual appreciation of authenticity fuels a genuine friendship in the midst of all the posturing and politics.
While Marion has learned to appreciate Hearst, first as a financial support and then for his ambition and care for her, Mank sees in Hearst everything he loathes about the Hollywood higher-ups: corruption, hypocrisy, and the flagrant abuse of power. Initially, his disapproval only surfaces in the form of sarcastic quips muttered quickly and quietly enough for their true severity to go unnoticed.
However, after witnessing Hearst use his monopolized influence to sway an election to protect his own personal interests, Mank reaches his breaking point. He shows up to one of Hearst’s grandiose dinner parties after a bout of heavy drinking and gives the media mogul a piece of his mind in the way he knows best: by telling a story.
For several minutes, he waxes on about a young, idealistic Don Quixote who, gradually corrupted by power and wealth, eventually abandons his former ideals and uses his dark magic to squash a younger Don Quixote because of the resentment he holds toward his former self, “killing, in the process, not one man but two.”
Cool and calculated as ever, Hearst is unfazed, sitting calmly through the rant and then personally escorting the drunken critic out of his castle. As he does so, he lectures Mank on the parable of the organ grinder’s monkey, who, dressed up in a fine outfit and given music to dance to by his owner, becomes convinced that he is the one in control of his master, not the other way around.
Hearst’s point is clear: Mank is the monkey, convinced that he has some leverage over his primary financier (it turns out Hearst pays half of Mank’s salary at MGM) when such a belief is mere delusion. He can wax on all he wants about corrupted idealists, but at the end of the day, Hearst is still the one who dresses him and plays the proverbial music for Mank to dance to.
Flash forward to 1940, where an older and wiser Mank is given the chance to finally tell the story he drunkenly pitched to Hearst all those years ago, this time on the silver screen. And he does, weaving a complex narrative about a young heir to a surprise fortune who grows up to be a hard-hitting journalist and, eventually, the wealthy owner of a nationwide newspaper. The character is named Charles Foster Kane, but the details of his life all point back to Hearst, and his corruption into a heartless, self-obsessed narcissist speaks volumes about Mank’s opinion of Hearst.
Initially, however, Mank’s producers aren’t convinced by his work. “It’s a bit of a jumble,” Houseman remarks after reading an early section of the screenplay. “A hodgepodge of talky episodes. A collection of fragments that leap around in time, like Mexican jumping beans.”
“Welcome to my mind, Old Sock,” Mank replies. “The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll, not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit.”
What Mank is describing would end up becoming the revolutionary non-linear storyline of “Citizen Kane,” told through an intricate patchwork of conversations, flashbacks and character moments. Seemingly as an homage to its protagonist as well as his work, “Mank” screenwriter Jack Fincher (father of director David Fincher) decides to structure this film’s story in a similar manner, splitting its narrative into two stories, one past and one present, that intertwine all the way through to the film’s climax.
For some viewers, its patchworked storytelling, as well as its detailed portrait of Golden Era Hollywood and its major players, will make “Mank” a challenging watch the first time through. That is why I’ve devoted most of this review to laying out what I believe is Mank’s central character arc; like the real-life man himself, his story sometimes gets lost in the noise of the big personalities and real-world politics surrounding him.
However, as the titular screenwriter explains in the film, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression of one.” “Mank” is not a simple film, but Mank was not a simple man, and it would be a disservice for the film about his life to not faithfully impress that on the audience. Like its protagonist, this film is complex, nuanced and messy, but it is so intentionally in the service of the story it’s telling.
From “The Social Network” to “Zodiac,” director David Fincher has spent his career crafting nuanced, grounded films that rarely shy away from exploring the complexity and contradictions of the fallen humans that we are. I understand, then, why Fincher worked for decades to bring “Mank,” the screenplay that his late father wrote back in the 1990s, to the big screen. It seems that he, like Mank, decided to follow Houseman’s advice: “Tell the story you know.”
“Mank” is currently available to stream on Netflix.
Ben Hiett is a senior Molecular Biology major and the Arts and Entertainment Editor for Cedars. When he’s not pretending to study, he loves watching movies, looking them up on Wikipedia afterwards, and hanging with the boys.