“You cannot capture a man’s life in two hours,” says screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), the subject of the behind-the-scenes Hollywood drama Mank. “You can only hope to leave an impression of it.” For better and for worse, that’s what director David Fincher accomplishes in this frustrating but undeniably impressive film. Best known to movie buffs as the co-author of Citizen Kane, Mankiewicz’s name has been somewhat lost to history, buried under the genius of Orson Welles (Tom Burke). There’s little chance a film as dry and stilted as Mank could fully revive it, but at least it gives us an impression.
Written by the director’s late father Jack Fincher, the film unfolds in two timelines. In the first, we meet “Mank,” as he is known to both his friends and enemies, as a fading, alcoholic screenwriter in Hollywood’s golden age. Long past his prime, Mank has been commissioned by rising star Welles to write a film about a newspaper man. While recovering from a car accident in Arizona, Mank dictates the screenplay to his young assistant (Lily Collins). Mercifully, not much of the actual writing is shown, but we learn through dialogue that Mank is using the script as a chance to settle old scores. Interspersed throughout are flashbacks to when Mank was more or less in the pink, perpetually drunk but still popular at parties, especially those thrown by his boss Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and media magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), for his quick wit and ability to hold his liquor.
There are various points of intrigue, but ultimately Mank is a film of subplots that are seeking a story. Viewers looking for revelations about the true authorship of Kane, a hotly debated subject for over fifty years now, are unlikely to be satisfied, as the film ends just as Welles begins his own work on the screenplay. They won’t learn much more about his relationship with Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), Hearst’s girlfriend, with whom Mank has an unexplained rapport. Nor do we leave with any deeper understanding of Mankiewicz the man, who the film frames as a person of principles but is incapable of sincerity. Every word out of his mouth is a bon mot, and while the dialogue is crisp, the act wears thin. Oldman recites his lines with zest, but all they reveal about his character is that he doesn’t wish to reveal himself.
Just as the central performance skims the surface, Fincher the director proves himself more interested in mimicry than excavation. He shot the film digitally but in black-and-white, with blemishes on screen to replicate scratches on film and fake changeover cues in the upper right-hand corner. The actors always sound as if they are on a stage, with a noticeable echo, even when the scene is set in nature. The artifice is fully on display, and while the film is an impressive simulacrum, it lacks the tactile sense that comes with shooting on film—or any sense of reality that allows viewers to connect with the story.
The closest it gets to salience is when Mank makes a startling discovery about his friends Mayer and Hearst: They are using actors to pass as real voters in campaign ads against socialist gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair. Perhaps the first instance of “fake news” as a political tool, Mank feels responsible for it because he accidentally suggested it during a drunken rant. For both its topicality and timelessness, Mank’s self-destructive contempt for the Hollywood elite is the film’s most compelling element, but it never feels consistent with any other part of his personality, so it fails to linger beyond its initial impact.
It’s almost as if Mank is writing the screenplay of his own life, and so the film is just as scattered, tedious, and occasionally brilliant as he is. It’s an enormous technical achievement, and perhaps also an artistic one, even if its successes don’t make it any more enjoyable to watch. Mank is a faithful impression of the life of a talented but unpleasant man who drove away almost all of his friends. In the end, he drives us away, too.
Mank begins streaming on Netflix on Friday, December 4.