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Film historians may have yet to solve the mystery of exactly who or what “Rosebud” was in Orson Welles’ great movie—some would say the greatest movie of all time—Citizen Kane. But Netflix’s new drama Mank pulls the curtain back on just about every other secret surrounding the famous production.
The Mank in question is title character Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, in yet another Oscar-worthy performance). A degenerate gambler and drunk, Mank has skated through his career, barely skimming the surface of the deep reservoir of writing talent he possesses. Most of the time he’s content to pitch pseudo-intellectual dreck to studio heads too much the philistines to recognize it for what it is. Eventually, a political vendetta against newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst drives him to team up with 24-year-old virtuoso Orson Welles to write the first draft of Kane.
The film’s skewering of Hollywood ethics—or lack of them—is good fun that comes with fewer expletives than you might expect from the R rating (it’s also refreshingly free of all other R-rated content).
Self-consciously stylish and stylized, the black-and-white production immerses the viewer in the feeling of the era, not just through the prewar musical score and affected accents, but through a never-ending, rapid-fire exchange of witticisms. How many sparkling one-liners like, “I couldn’t have put it better myself, Mrs. A, which may be why I write for the movies,” fill Mank? Enough that I eventually quit jotting them down for potential use in this review.
The strongest parts of the film—the beginning and end—offer a parable about the creative process. We get hints that it isn’t so much the drinking and all-around lousy living that plague Mank. It’s his knowledge that he’s squandering his talent on easy money and his time on churning out hits that will mostly be forgotten.
Unfortunately, director David Fincher turns his attention away from this compelling character study to push a political agenda that seems to have less to do with Mank than himself.
Given how many politicians and pastors today have suggested Jesus held socialist sympathies, scenes where novelist and gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair makes the same argument speak to the enduring quality of our ideological debates. But Fincher stacks the deck, offering no reasonable (and certainly not a Biblical) rebuttal to the premise. It’s a bit ironic that the film, which so hails Mank’s stubborn refusal to offer uncritical support to any political movement, doesn’t look more closely at how conveniently its themes align with prevailing opinion in today’s Tinseltown.
What was brilliant about the Citizen Kane script was how it peeled away the layers to show us the deeper needs of the man behind the politics and corruption. It’s a shame director David Fincher didn’t follow his character’s lead.