If you’ve read even a few volumes of Hollywood history you’ve probably encountered Herman J. Mankiewicz, whose well-earned reputation as a wit rests on a handful of oft-told anecdotes. All of them are dutifully included in David Fincher’s ambitious film, based on a screenplay written some time ago by his late father. The through-line of the movie is the now-legendary set of circumstances that surrounded the writing of Citizen Kane.

Mankiewicz was “drying out,” as they used to say, in a shack near Victorville, California, dictating to a secretary. John Houseman was charged with keeping an eye on the alcoholic writer on behalf of the Mercury Theater troupe. Orson Welles was not present, and how large a role he played in the final version of that script has been endlessly debated. Nearly everyone agrees that Mankiewicz was the primary author but—many believe—Welles made contributions well beyond interpreting the material as its director. Those who remain in the Welles camp will not be happy with Mank.

But for all its laudable efforts to capture the look and feel of Hollywood in the 1930s, including re-creations of Hearst Castle and the MGM studio lot, the film is dramatically inert. What life it has is mostly thanks to another superb performance by Gary Oldman, who approaches the character of Mank with a light touch. You believe you are actually watching the man he is portraying.

Fincher has gone to the trouble of casting actors who bear some resemblance to famous figures of the period like George S. Kaufman and Ben Hecht, whose appearances are fleeting (and don’t even include mention of their last names.) My favorite indulgence is the replicating of movie cue marks in the upper right hand corner of the frame: a nice in-joke for film buffs.

Woe to less informed audience members, however. One almost feels the need for an annotated libretto or study guide to follow all the side trips and incidental characters stuffed into this bloated film. When “Charlie,” not yet identified as screenwriter Charles Lederer, says he’s going to visit his Aunt Marion, are we supposed to know, or intuit, that he’s referring to Marion Davies, the legendary mistress of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst?

I’m not sure what the creators of Mank hoped to achieve that hasn’t been covered in other dramatizations, not to mention articles and books. Fincher is a talented filmmaker but this vaunted subject was deserving of a much more focused blueprint. Handsome as it is, I found Mank disappointing and mostly forgettable.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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July 2024