‘Mank’ Review: A Rosebud by Any Other Name

For as long as anyone can remember, Hollywood has reverently burnished and energetically debunked its own mythology. This isn’t hypocrisy; it’s show business. Cynicism about the low motives and compromised ideals of the movie industry is an industry article of faith. The movies don’t so much reflect public ambivalence about their power as actively promote it. We enjoy being fooled, and we also take pleasure in studying the machinery of our bamboozlement. As long as we keep watching, everybody wins.

David Fincher’s “Mank” is a worthy, eminently watchable entry in the annals of Hollywood self-obsession. That it is unreliable as history should go without saying. Most of its characters are verifiably real figures — including famous and half-forgotten directors, screenwriters, stars and studio bosses — but they are embedded in a spectacle that shimmers with knowing artificiality.

Presented in silvery, sharp-shadowed black and white (the cinematographer is Erik Messerschmidt), these specters of Old Hollywood speak in salty epigrams against a satiny, sinister score (by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and act out a looping, cautionary fable of ruin and at least partial redemption. Each scene is introduced with a typed-out note — EXT. — MGM STUDIOS — DAY — 1934 (FLASHBACK) — to remind us where we are. At the movies. (Or almost: “Mank” starts streaming Friday on Netflix).

Fincher’s subject, more or less, is the genesis of “Citizen Kane,” or at least the writing of the first draft of the screenplay (called “American”) that will serve as the basis for Orson Welles’s debut feature. The author is Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a veteran studio hack with a broken leg and a drinking problem. Laid up in a remote desert guesthouse, attended to by a German physical therapist (Monika Gossmann) and a British amanuensis (Lily Collins), pestered by the producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), Mankiewicz smokes, snarks and scribbles, a bedridden Ahab in pursuit of the great white whale named William Randolph Hearst.

Hearst, the newspaper titan and political power broker who was the model for Charles Foster Kane, was hardly a stranger to Mankiewicz. The flashback sections of the film chronicle their association — Hearst is played with regal nonchalance by Charles Dance — in the early and mid-1930s. (The writing of the “Kane” script takes place in 1940.) In those days, Mankiewicz, originally under contract to Paramount, floats into the MGM orbit, crossing paths and rhetorical swords with the studio chief Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and his head of production, Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).

Those names are as encrusted with legend as any in American movies, and Fincher trusts that some luster and intrigue still clings to them. Film buffs and literary nerds of a certain antiquarian temperament will delight in the busy parade of walk-ons and shout-outs. Josef von Sternberg! Ben Hecht! George S. Kaufman! Joseph Mankiewicz! (That’s Herman’s kid brother, played by Tom Pelphrey.) All present and (briefly) accounted for.

Mank himself is an indulged and indulgent fixture of the backlots and banquets. A usually charming drunk and a seriously bad gambler, he is prized for his sharp tongue and his soft heart. Oldman’s performance can stand as a companion piece to his impersonation of Winston Churchill a few years ago in “Darkest Hour.” Both men are portly bons vivants, fond of liquor and tobacco, flanked by long-suffering wives (the wonderfully sly Tuppence Middleton is “Poor Sara” Mankiewicz) and English secretaries played by actresses named Lily. And both find themselves, in the fateful year of 1940, struggling to complete a singularly consequential piece of writing. An odd coincidence.

What does not seem to be a coincidence is that both Mank and Sir Winston, as Oldman understands them, are creatures of language, odd ducks who take flight in, through and for the sake of words. What’s marvelous about Mankiewicz is how the physicality of Oldman’s performance emphasizes his identity as a writer and a talker. He is pear-shaped and swaybacked, rumpled and shambling, his body as indifferently maintained as an old jalopy.

Accordingly, many of the delights of “Mank” are verbal — the deliciously literate script is by Jack Fincher, the director’s father. Mank flings bons mots and brickbats with mischievous relish, and there are a handful of smart people around who can return his volleys with proper screwball topspin. Mayer, who has no sense of humor, is an easy target. Hearst appreciates Mank’s way with words, until he doesn’t.

Mankiewicz’s most devoted interlocutor — a fellow transplant from New York and a first-class wit in her own right — is Marion Davies, the actress who is also Hearst’s longtime romantic partner. As Davies, Amanda Seyfried, her face ringed in blond curls and seemingly illuminated by a private spotlight, adds glamour to the movie, and realism too. Davies has gotten a raw deal from history, in part because of the cruelty of the way she’s portrayed in “Citizen Kane,” but Seyfried understands her as a pragmatist, a woman who has learned to live with the choices she has made, aware of the compromises and contradictions of her position.

Mank isn’t as reconciled, and his uneasy conscience is the dramatic engine of the story. The crucial event is the California gubernatorial election of 1934. The Democratic nominee is Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye), a writer (most famously of “The Jungle”) and anti-poverty crusader whose embrace of socialism rattled many of the state’s wealthy citizens, including Mayer, Thalberg and Hearst.

Mank’s complicity with their efforts to use the influence of motion pictures to derail Sinclair’s candidacy — in spite of his own leftist sympathies — is the source of the writer’s vendetta against Hearst. The “Citizen Kane” script is his revenge. As an account of the movie’s origin this may be arguable, but would-be defenders of Welles’s reputation risk missing the argument that the Finchers, père and fils, are advancing. Welles, who barrels into the picture every now and then (in the person of Tom Burke) is less Mank’s nemesis than a kind of deus ex machina, pushing the narrative forward without entirely belonging to it.

And that is because Welles’s charisma — his independence, his genius, his blithe disregard for social or business conventions — is alien to Hollywood as Mankiewicz (and perhaps Fincher) knows it. Mank refers to Welles, not entirely derisively, as “the boy genius,” an interesting echo of Thalberg’s sobriquet, which was “the boy wonder.” Thalberg, while not as vain as Hearst or as volatile as Mayer, is Welles’s true antithesis: a company man, as passionately committed to the workings of the system he helped design as Welles is to his own creative integrity. They are both, in their different ways, heroic (and also tragic) figures in the mythology of movies.

Not Mankiewicz. He is, almost as a matter of principle, a minor player in the Hollywood pageant. The paradoxes of his position are the film’s real subject. He is a bleeding-heart liberal comfortably ensconced in a fundamentally conservative milieu, a court jester whose proximity to power underscores his impotence, a critical intellect whose aloofness renders him ineffectual. Like a lot of East Coast scribes (then and still) he thinks the movies are beneath him, even though he doesn’t mind the money or the company. He finds it easier to crack a joke than to take a stand.

Neither a maverick nor a visionary, he’s an alienated insider, a participant observer, a kibitzer at the table where the big guys make the big bets. Which may just be a verbose way of saying that he’s a writer. I’ll drink to that.

Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 11 minutes. Watch on Netflix.

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