“You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours”, declares Herman Mankiewicz. “All you can hope is to leave the impression of one”. After viewing this biopic, the impression one is left of Mank is that of a brilliant wit whose talents as a screenwriter were squandered by an insatiable appetite for gambling and alcohol. The other perception one gains is that Mank was a socialist at heart whose sense of justice compelled him to bite the hand that had been feeding him for years. Unfortunately, only one of these scenarios is true while the other just keeps getting in the way.
Laid up in a remote motel room where he is recuperating from a car accident, Mankiewicz follows the dictum of writing what he knows about in a screenplay he calls ‘American’. Despite its generic title, the subject of Mank’s story becomes clear within its first few pages. William Randolph Hearst, America’s most powerful media magnate of the earlier 20th Century, regularly held court for Hollywood’s elite at his expansive San Simeon mansion. His mistress, actress Marion Davies, would play the part of the perfect hostess while Mank occasionally fulfilled the role of court jester. Though his barbs would sometimes inflict more than a flesh wound, Mank remained mindful of his position until the upper echelon turned their considerable power against an idealistic politician.
Like the film that it surveys, this biopic is technically flawless, with many evocative cues found in the period-appropriate composition by Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and the gorgeous black-and-white cinematography of Erik Messerschmidt. Gary Oldman, excelling once more in the biopic genre, leads a uniformly excellent cast. Amanda Seyfried turns in a delightful performance of Marion Davies; Tom Burke impresses in his few scenes as Orson Welles and Arliss Howard is comically loathsome as Louis B. Mayer, crying crocodile tears at a moment’s notice.
Ironically, for a film focused on process of screenwriting, the one fault of this biopic lies in its script. Written by director David Fincher’s father, it attempts to provide an explanation for Mank’s motivations by shoehorning a subplot concerning Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial tilt. In doing so, it diverts attention from the more intriguing elements of the story, made all the more apparent by the final interaction between Mank and Davies.
So while this film is undoubtedly a significant cinematic achievement, its lack of an emotional core would prevent even Mayer reaching for the tissues. Whereas Mank the screenwriter maintains his script for Citizen Kane is like a cinnamon roll, Mank the biopic runs the risk of being like a glazed donut.
Shelly Metcalf is a fictional character
Despite focusing on the making of Citizen Kane, the only scene recreations in this biopic are some political attack ads against gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair.