In the first twenty minutes or so of David Fincher’s overrated Netflix film “Mank,” we see Gary Oldman lying in bed with his leg in a full cast slugging down one whiskey after another. Mank is the nickname of Herman J. Mankiewicz, who wrote the screenplay for “Citizen Kane,” widely regarded as the greatest American film ever made. It is 1940 and Orson Welles has tasked him with cranking out a script in sixty days while he recovers from a serious automobile accident in a country retreat. There are two women trying to keep him productive, a thankless task given his alcoholism. One is a German nurse who barely escaped the Nazi death camps. The other is a British secretary who is both taking dictation from Mank and nagging him to stay sober and focus on his work.
Played by Gary Oldman in a scenery-chewing performance that impressed most critics, Mank is always coming up with some arch, overly clever dialog that has about as much relationship to the way that people speak as I do with running in a marathon. When the secretary learns that Mank was a frequent guest of William Randolph Hearst, she asks him what his mistress Marion Davies was like. He replies: “Why is it when you scratch a prim, starchy schoolgirl, you get a swooning motion picture fan who has forgotten all she learned about the Battle of Hastings.” The secretary, of course, is the starchy schoolgirl and his reference to the Battle of Hastings was a put-down since he assumed she knew nothing about it. She immediately shows him up by identifying the day it took place, which is the kind of drama you can expect from this film.
I had a sense of déjà vu watching the patronizing and obnoxious behavior of Mank. Where did I see such a character before? All of a sudden it hit me. The friction between Mank and his two female aides was straight out of “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” the 1942 film that featured Monty Woolley as Sheridan Whiteside—a famous radio personality on a speaking tour. When he falls on the ice in front of the house where he is to be a dinner guest, he breaks his leg. Carried into the house, he insists on remaining there until he heals. People love this film because Whiteside, like Mank, is always coming up with pithy observations that seem more at home in a theater than in a film.
Indeed, much of “Mank” seems not only stagey but a homage to those black-and-white 1930s and 40s films shown continuously on the Turner Classic Movies channel. Director David Fincher made the decision to film in black-and-white so as to evoke the classic films of yore. The screenplay, which was written by his late father Jack in 2003, is stuffed to the gills with the kind of dialog you’ll hear in “The Man Who Came to Dinner.” The film was based on a hit Broadway play by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart, who were part of the social milieu around the Algonquin Hotel, just as Mank was. This gives the film the feel of an antique that belonged on TCM as well. What’s missing from Fincher’s film is the kind of elan that is on display in the authentic period piece. Given his father’s lack of experience as a screenwriter (“Mank” is his only work that ever made to the theaters), the net effect is a visually striking film that is hollow in the center, like a Choux pastry.
The Finchers can’t seem to make up their mind about who Herman J. Mankiewicz was. As an anti-hero, he is caught between two worlds. Like most screenplay writers in Hollywood in the 1930s, he saw his work as a way to pay for a lavish life-style, including booze by the case. (Early on, we see one delivered to him, courtesy of Orson Welles.) After crossing paths with Marion Davies during her film shoot, he soon finds himself a regular guest at Hearst’s castle in San Simeon, California. At the dinner table, he is quite entertaining—practically a court jester.
Given his affinity for the Hearsts—the Donald Trump and Melania Trump of his day—you might wonder why Mank ever ended up writing a screenplay that would turn Hearst into a monster like Citizen Kane, a man whose real-life equivalent practically invented the kind of journalism that made Rupert Murdoch a billionaire.
If you’ve glanced at the publicity or reviews of “Mank,” you’ll assume it was Herman J. Mankiewicz getting revenge for Hearst’s savaging of Upton Sinclair’s 1934 campaign for governor of California, which the film shows him supporting. Known as the EPIC campaign (End Poverty in California), it pitted Sinclair as a Sandernista-type Democrat running against the Republican Frank Merriam, who was backed by Hearst as well as all the studio bosses. Like Sheldon Adelson, they were Jews and rightwing Republicans. Tensions rise as Mank confronts Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, his bosses at MGM, who hate Sinclair.
In one of the key scenes, we see Mank sitting with them at a dining table in an exclusive supper club as the votes are recorded. Mank bets $24,000 that Sinclair will win, a hefty sum in those days. He loses for the same reason that Sanders lost. He was stabbed in the back by FDR who had nothing but contempt for socialism. Despite Sanders’s assurance that Biden could be the most progressive president since FDR, it turns out that Biden was like FDR but not the way that Sanders understood. He was someone trying to protect the interests of big corporations, including the Hollywood studios. Today, of course, the studios are for the Democrats but that’s a function of their support for a globalized film market that has allowed Hollywood to hollow out industries elsewhere. No wonder, Netflix decided to produce “Mank.”
In the most interesting scene in the film, Mank crashes a dinner party at Hearst’s castle while three sheets to the wind. He circles around the immense table with the Republican Party elites dressed up for a costume party and delivers a fiery speech about what evil plutocrats they are. From this scene and the advance publicity, you’d get the impression that he was some kind of radical. Nothing could be further from the truth as Greg Mitchell, the author of “The Campaign of the Century: Upton Sinclair’s Race for Governor of California and the Birth of Media Politics,” explained in a New York Times article dated December 7th:
But how accurate is that plot point beyond the fact that Sinclair, a former Socialist, captured the Democratic primary in a landslide and appeared headed for victory that November, leading a mass movement? In the film, Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) defends Sinclair five years before answering Welles’s call to write “Kane.” Mank refuses the MGM chief Louis B. Mayer’s order to hand over a donation to Sinclair’s Republican opponent. Then he tries to get Thalberg to kill the phony newsreels the producer had devised to destroy Sinclair.
It’s true that Mankiewicz played a key role in the 1934 campaign. That Mankiewicz, however, was not Herman but his brother, Joseph, also a screenwriter at MGM. There is no evidence that Herman took any stand for Sinclair, let alone a nearly heroic one, or even voted for him. His brother, on the other hand, wrote outrageous anti-Sinclair radio dramas, he admitted when I interviewed him for my book on the 1934 race, “The Campaign of the Century.”
I can understand taking liberties with historical events, as is customary in Hollywood movies, but this is beyond belief. The Finchers might get credit for making a film that anticipated the political conflicts of 2020. However, that would have been better suited to a film about Upton Sinclair’s campaign, which despite being compromised by its use of the Democratic Party ballot line, did reflect the class struggle taking place in 1934. Don’t hold your breath waiting.
As a marked contrast, I recommend the 1999 HBO film titled “RKO 281” that can be seen on YouTube for free.
It is a leaner, more conventional film without the bothersome flashbacks Fincher employs. According to IMDB, Fincher’s film has a cast of 140, with—in my opinion—none developed nearly as well as Mank’s character. “RKO 281” has a measly cast of 15, but each character achieves a higher level of development, especially Liev Schreiber as Welles and John Malkovich as Mank.
John Logan wrote the screenplay with help by Richard Ben Cramer and Thomas Lennon, who made the documentary “The Battle Over Citizen Kane.” Cramer was the author of the acclaimed biography “Joe DiMaggio: The Hero’s Life.”
Upton Sinclair does not figure at all in “RKO 281.” Mostly, it is about the testy relationship between Welles and Mank, who Welles regards early on in the film as a talented has-been and a drunk. Unlike Fincher, Logan et al see Welles as the prime mover behind the making of “Citizen Kane,” delivering over 400 pages of notes he had gathered on Hearst. Keeping in mind that Welles was only 24 when he made this film, it is astonishing that he could gather together the creative team that made it possible, including Mank who had become unemployable because of his alcoholism.
Simply put, Schreiber and Malkovich are great in this TV movie that is about all you need to know about the making of “Citizen Kane” and a good corrective to Fincher’s rewriting of history.