A new streaming movie about Old Hollywood results in a classic disappointment.
Herman J. Mankiewicz, known as ‘Mank”, was a screenwriter whose career spanned nearly three decades of the Golden Age of Hollywood. He wrote or contributed to over 90 movies.
He won the only Oscar ever given to “Citizen Kane”, when he shared an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay with Orson Welles. Film critic Pauline Kael argued in 1971 that he deserved the entire credit, sparking a controversy that rages to this day.
So why is Mankiewicz remembered just as a drunken gadfly who died early, known mostly for a batch of amusing stories?
Director David Fincher, trying to supply an answer, opens in 1940 at an isolated ranch house, where Mankiewicz, laid up with a broken leg and a covert supply of booze, is struggling to write a story that is an obviously disguised biography of William Randolph Hearst.
We then flash back to Hollywood of the 20’s and 30’s, where the filmmakers churn up a lot of details, but the overall atmosphere still feels like a superficial bio-pick. It’s the kind of place where you know they’re filming a movie because extras are walking around in Indian costumes.
The screenplay is by Fincher’s own late father, Jack. Sorry, but it’s an uninspired script, with a lot of exposition letting us know that the Depression, or World War II, is happening. When a famous person turns up, someone will say something like, “So, Louis B. Mayer—we meet again.”
And when you see Mayer, or Irving Thalberg, or John Houseman, or other legendary folk, they turn up as bland, two-dimensional characters.
To supply detail, somebody went to their library of books on Old Hollywood, and we get a smorgasbord of famous real anecdotes, one-liners, trivia and factoids.
The central event in the flashbacks is the election of 1934, when socialist Upton Sinclair had a real shot at being elected California Governor. The studios, especially MGM, crushed his campaign with phony newsreels where their bit players and extras appeared as actual voters. Yes, folks—honest-to-God Fake News!
In Fincher’s version of events, Mank uncovers the plot like it was a conspiracy out of “Chinatown.” He’s torn by guilt, because an off-hand joke he made to Thalberg inspired the whole campaign. There’s also an entirely fictional character, who is so remorseful about directing the fake newsreels that—well, you can guess.
Back in present-day (1940) the movie tells us, this is why Mank is driven to finish his Kane script—because he is tapping into everything he knows, from his wasted life, about power, corruption, love, forsaken idealism, wasted potential, and pouring it into one masterpiece.
A nice concept, but as Mank says at one point about his script, “It doesn’t sing!”
Gary Oldman does his best, but in the script, he’s a cliché—the intellect who has to truckle to the Man, and hides from the truth behind wisecracks and self-loathing booziness. Charles Dance as Hearst is again, playing one of his quiet soul-crushing authoritarian characters. Maybe there’s a silver lining in that the movie redeems the reputation of Hearst’s mistress Marion Davies (likably played by Amanda Seyfried) who was not the pathetic, untalented bimbo Susan Alexander.
“Mank” doesn’t get behind the phony tinsel of Hollywood to show us the real tinsel. It gets two stars on the marquee, out of five. For the Friday Film review, I’m Rick Brough