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.