Nothing is “Citizen Kane.” The 1941 Welles masterpiece is the insurmountable climax of American cinema. And we know this is true, because all the people who know things about movies say so. If they didn’t say so, they wouldn’t be people who know things about movies, as testifying to “Citizen Kane’s” greatness is really the only criteria distinguishing those who truly know about and appreciate the art of film– excuse me, cinema– from the rest of you vulgar, Marvel-guzzling philistines.
Given the film’s Almighty status, I suppose it’s unreasonable to compare a film to “Citizen Kane” just because it happens to be about the making of “Citizen Kane.” Nonetheless, when that film is directed by David Fincher, stars Gary Oldman, and recounts one of the most exciting and scandalous stories in Hollywood history, I do expect it to come pretty damn close.
Unfortunately, if “Kane” is the Holy Bible of cinema– a deep, complicated, and poetic exploration of the painful, endlessly self-contradictory desires of the human soul– “Mank” is a Joel Osteen sermon. You get the gist, you get a sense of the characters involved, and a pleasant, palatable moral that applies to your own life and your own time and that you take home with you when the movie’s finished– but nothing especially poignant. This is excusable for most modern directors, but not Fincher, who has crafted an entire career around a keen, crystallized attention to detail, and a nuanced understanding of how each individual technical element of filmmaking directly contributes to the overall effect the film has on its audience– detail and precision that is noticeably, tragically absent from “Mank.”
Telling the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz– known familiarly to friends and colleagues as “Mank” (and portrayed with brilliant, bone dry sardonicism by Gary Oldman in a role that, despite its relative lack of dimensionality on the page, will almost certainly win the actor an Academy Award nomination for best actor, and perhaps even a second win)– during his two-month-long stint on a secluded ranch in Victorville, California– where he has been put-up by rising star and “boy genius” Orson Welles to write the script for the wunderkind’s first film– the script which will eventually become the basis for Hollywood’s greatest triumph– the set-up presents a veritable candy-store’s-worth of avenues for rich, thought-provoking exploration of the human condition– the struggle between the artist and his work; between the young emerging Hollywood embodied by the feisty, temperamental Welles and the fading days of the early talkies era during which Mank enjoyed his hey-day; between the general public and the corrupt, powerful institutions that influence it. But when such a gold-mine of material is presented, one must be all the more crafty in its excavation. The problem with “Mank” is that it doesn’t incrementally chip away at this lode of thematic possibilities in a focused, cohesive way, bringing the different narrative elements together into a single, unified storyline. Instead it gets overwhelmed by its extravagant potential and attempts to blast it out of the ground all at once– leaving nothing more than a messy, dusty pile of intriguing but unfulfilled half-narratives that reveal very little about the actual, internal struggles of the central character they are intended to showcase in its wake.
“The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll” says Mank to “Kane” producer John Houseman in an early scene, “Not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit. You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression.” This may be true for “Kane,” which swirls around and around through the various episodes of its central protagonist’s life until finally reaching it’s ambiguous, though nonetheless deeply relatable, deeply impressing center. “Mank,” however, is a bit more like an apple fritter. A big lumpy mess of meandering storylines that seem to constantly be folding over one another without any rhyme or reason, ultimately adding up to something that’s light and sweet and enjoyable, but not particularly filling.
In many ways, it seems the film is meant to be a character study paralleling that of “Kane,” exploring the externally blithe though deeply tortured Mankiewicz. The film even uses the same flashback-centered structure popularized by Welles’s film. However, within this structure, it attempts at times to be a zany, screwball, Coen-esque homage to Old Hollywood and the quirky characters who populated it, an exposé of the corrupt and manipulative tactics employed by the industry (and, by implicit extension, certain sects of the modern media) to promote and uphold their twisted political ideologies, and a psychological drama about a writer struggling to meet a looming deadline– none of which combine into anything particularly poignant or resonant, but instead simply clank around for two hours until the film’s final, merciful end.
There isn’t enough focus to leave a real impact, and there isn’t enough fun to make it a purely enjoyable waste of time. The film is caught between its nostalgic admiration for old Hollywood and its desire to tell a truthful, meaningful story that exposes the dark forces that lay at the industry’s center during that era.
The characters speak in quick, zippy sentences with the same air of canned confidence that defined the screwball comedies and newspaper flicks that defined the studio era– films which served as the generic model for “Kane.” But character and humanity is not revealed through snappy chat, but rather in the deep, lingering silences that arise when life and experience become too heavy to explain away. In “Kane,” the slick press-room-talk that the characters engage in is framed as a facade for the deep-seated pain that lies at their centers. It is the thing that distracts them from their failures to achieve what they so desperately seek- whatever that may be.
The moments when their clever clap-backs fail– when Kane reflects on his lost childhood while toying with a snow globe left behind in the room of his recently-departed lover, the cold, lacerating stare he digs into his drama critic, and only remaining friend, Jedediah Leland after hearing the Leland’s scathing review of Kane’s opera-singer wife’s most recent performance, and the terse, icy “you’re fired,” he delivers afterward– are the moments that showcase who they are, and that provide the film with its unique power. “Kane” recognizes the artifice of its characters’s confident personas and snappy speaking styles. It is a poetic diversion from their underlying sense of uncertainty. It is quick and smart and zingy, but also hollow and absurd. The language in “Mank,” meanwhile, is expository. The characters words are never at odds with their thoughts. They always say exactly what they are thinking exactly as they intend it to be heard– their spit-fire delivery only adding extra pizazz to their fully formed thoughts, rather than accentuating their ultimate meaninglessness.
The confusion of the screenplay only extends into the film’s clunky aesthetic composition. While the editing is sleek and the black and white camera work striking, both keep rapid-fire pace with the characters’s snappy syntax throughout the film, which, once again, runs contrary to the more brooding tone suggested by the overall narrative. Everything is sped along, one shot after another, in a manner that mirrors the high-speed pace of the old studios, but does nothing to highlight the humanity inside of them. There are gimmicky homages to the filmmaking tricks of the golden age– overlay shots, fades to black, cue marks– all of which make the film fun and campy and attractive to the cinema-savvy viewer, and would be right at home in a film by, say, Quentin Tarantino or Edgar Wright. But the story of “Mank” is not an homage to this bygone era of film history, it’s a repudiation of it. It’s a film that is meant to peel away the rose-tinted glasses through which we so often view this time period and expose the darker realities that lurked behind its cameras.
And exposing darker realities is precisely where Fincher shines. It’s what he’s made his name doing. And he’s one of the few directors still working in Hollywood who knows how to do it right and who knows how to do it well. In an industry that has resigned itself to accepting appeals to surface-level to nostalgia through intertextual references as standard, Fincher is one of the few filmmakers in modern Hollywood who still understands how each individual element of cinematic composition in and of itself combines to create a specific effect on the audience. He does not rely on the kinds of recycled sight gags that have become so common in the modern film industry as a means of indicating theme and purpose, but rather blends and manipulates (with notable precision) each technical facet of each shot– each angle, each camera movement, each light, each gesture– to create a distinct and finely-tuned visual mood that is wholly unique to the film itself. His is not a style defined by cheap recurring techniques lazily employed for the sake of putting his auteurist “stamp” on a piece of work, but by his ability to so neatly align the form of the scene with the function it serves in the story. “Mank” doesn’t showcase this same kind of precision– at least, not precision in service of a greater whole. The composition of the shots may be intricate, but they are not purposeful. They do not build off of each other to create a grander overall effect the way they do in most Fincher flicks, but instead provide the audience with a cheap collection of short, shallow hits of nostalgia hurried along by a contrapuntally jazzy Trent Reznor score (yet another contributor whose traditionally intricate, meditative musical style is curiously whitewashed by a stagnantly zingy saxophone score here.)
While “Mank” is passable as a light, nostalgic drama, it fails to meet the robust potential presented by its infinitely mineable setup and reputable creative team.