In 1925, Herman J Mankiewicz, newly employed Hollywood screenwriter, sent a famous telegram to fellow New Yorker Ben Hecht. “Will you accept three hundred per week to work for Paramount Pictures? All expenses paid. The three hundred is peanuts. Millions are to be grabbed out here and your only competition is idiots. Don’t let this get around.”

In David Fincher’s film Mank this notorious missive is paraphrased, relocated to 1930, the recipient switched to Herman’s brother Joe, its status is lowered to that of a tired old running gag and it is shorn of its punchline. That’s this film all over: flagrantly inaccurate, its inventions usually less interesting and more confusing than the truth it rejects, freely borrowing other people’s witty remarks, but heedless as to what made those quips funny in the first place. Elsewhere, Sam Goldwyn’s famous barb about sending messages by Western Union is put in the mouth of Louis B Mayer and Mankiewicz himself adopts John Houseman’s savagely funny nickname for Orson Welles: Maestro The Dog-Faced Boy.

Mank, now trailing ten Oscar nominations in its wake, is (sort-of) the story of the writing of Citizen Kane. That’s a big problem right there. The actual process of writing, the hard graft of trying to construct a screenplay, the endless finessing of dialogue and action lines, the painstaking editing and re-editing, is rarely dramatic, and almost never cinematic. But whereas there are fascinating stories to be told about how Welles got the contract of a lifetime at RKO, why he wanted to collaborate with Mank and how they settled on Hearst as a suitable subject – not to mention the nearly catastrophic fallout when the film was completed – none of this is of interest to Fincher who starts the action with a 90 day countdown to Mank finishing the first draft and ends the movie before Welles starts shooting his.

That it’s Mank doing the writing means that Fincher (and his late dad Jack who wrote the script – given an uncredited polish by Eric Roth, irony fans) has swallowed the Pauline Kael Kool-Aid and is repeating the easily-debunked lie that Mank deserved sole credit for the Oscar-winning screenplay. Like Kael, Fincher’s camera just doesn’t look at it any of the writing of Kane done by Welles and thus concludes that he did none. In interviews, Fincher has claimed that he had no interest in attributing credit. But he was interested in the story of a man who agreed not to accept credit and then changed his mind. The sum total screentime which this debate occupies is less than two minutes. A great deal of the rest of it is rather ho-hum life-in-1930s-Hollywood flashback, which eventually and laboriously drags itself towards a slightly hysterical and mildly revisionist take on radical novelist Upton Sinclair’s run for Governor of California in 1934, which is then presented as Mankiewicz’s motivation for writing a satire about Hearst.

The facts are that Sinclair’s bid was harmed by “fake news” propaganda films released by MGM, and by poisonous columns in Hearst papers – although other papers were even more violently anti-Sinclair. Mank gilds this slim story with Herman being the only Sinclair supporter amid hundreds of loyal Republican MGM staffers, his personal crusade via his friendship with Marion Davies to prevent the films from being released, and the suicide of the writer-turned-editor-turned-director who was somehow goaded into creating these monstrosities. In real life, the editor of the films (who was previously employed by MGM as… checks notes… an editor) was perfectly happy with his work and made more of the same.

Mankiewicz had no involvement with Upton Sinclair whatsoever, and would no doubt have been drawn to the legend of Hearst even if he hadn’t first been a frequent guest at San Simeon and then been humiliatingly uninvited. So this is somewhat of a made-up answer in search of a suitable question. And the movie shifts gears abruptly when Mank’s aloof cynicism suddenly turns into messianic zeal as he briefly battles to prevent the forces of darkness from winning. It’s true that by this point in the film I was getting very fed up of people walking in and out of rooms, making mordant wisecracks at each other, always in the same monotonous rhythms, smothered by the ever-present score, and I dearly longed for there to be something at stake, for someone to strive for something, for me to be hoping for one outcome or dreading another. But its hard to escape the conclusion that Gary Oldman’s Mank adopts this role of desperate defender of all that is good and holy because he’s the protagonist of the movie since this behaviour is totally at odds with everything else we know about him. And this is the problem with making shit up to try and turn your slice-of-true-life into a screenplay. You need to make sure the pieces fit together and that what you’ve added to reality coheres with what was there before. Better to make up almost everything (as in Argo) – or just give up and make a documentary – if the fiction fails to mesh with the fact to this extent.

Take Mank’s relationship with Marion Davies. Probably the best scene in the entire film is their conversation in the garden of San Simeon. The score dies down, people stop quipping over each other and we just get to explore who these people are, and what they mean to each other. It has little to do with Welles or Kane or Sinclair or anything else but it does explore deeper themes of fame, wealth, notoriety and the power of narratives to shape our understanding of the world.

However, this largely-invented relationship now has to do battle with what most viewers already know. The person who came off worst from Citizen Kane was probably that same Marion Davies. Welles in several interviews is rather shamefaced about her, describing their depiction of Kane’s second wife as a “dirty trick” which unfairly tarnished the reputation of a basically blameless and clearly talented young woman. Obviously, at the time, the enterprising young screenwriters didn’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.

But, watching Mank, you are forced to conclude that Herman J Mankiewicz establishes a deep friendship and trust with Davies. Then, given total autonomy to write whatever screenplay he wishes, he chooses to write a version of Hearst and a version of Davies which wildly defames them both, and then when the damage this will do to Davies is pointed out to him – on two separate occasions – despite no pressure whatsoever in any other direction, he calmly leaves the screenplay exactly as it is without his conscience bothering him for a moment. And remember – the lesson he has supposedly learned from the Sinclair debacle is: movies can alter how people think. At this point, it’s impossible to try and understand who Herman Mankiewicz is. He’s reduced to a series of checkboxes and catchphrases, assembled at random.

There are other problems besides. While taking almost no time at all to school younger viewers as to who Welles is, what Citizen Kane is and why it matters, the script makes sure we know who individual characters are by having people greet them by name and most notable feature: “Thalberg! The boy genius!” “Herman Mankiewicz? New York playwright and drama critic?” Neither Mankiewicz nor Welles would ever have stood for that. Elsewhere, LB Mayer is “poppa” and WR Hearst is “pops” just in case you were having trouble keeping all these old white wisecracking men straight. About halfway through the film, everybody starts calling Hearst “Willy” to avoid confusion. And the Frankenstein plotting continues right to the end, where Mayer’s offer to buy the Kane negative off RKO for a little more than the film cost to make is bizarrely made before the script is even finished. And, a colossal bet that Mankiewicz makes on the outcome of the election is given huge weight and then never referred to again.

Performances are largely fine. Oldman is several decades too old for Mankiewicz, but maybe that fits given that Herman J essentially drank himself to death over many years. Sam Troughton makes a suitably fussy and pedantic John Houseman, Amanda Seyfried is very winning as Davies and Tom Burke catches something of Welles’ voice, although little of his wry self-reflection and megawatt charisma, while Charles Dance chews the scenery with predictable relish as Hearst.

And it all looks magnificent of course. One can only wonder if Fincher considered shooting it in 4:3 ala Zach Synder, but he fills the widescreen frame with period detail, including reel change marks, fake splices and type-written captions which, after they’ve appeared, scroll jerkily down the screen – you know, the way that paper in a typewriter doesn’t. It’s cute at first, but wearying after a while, like a precious child constantly demanding your attention.

There is a fascinating story here, and there are glimpses of what might have been. But the brilliance of the Kane script is (in part) that it takes a vastly complicated narrative, boils it down to only the most interesting and dramatic sequences and then erects a framing device which not only gives the whole enterprise a second layer of meaning, but avoids the need for any clumsy exposition to be given in dialogue. For a film which keeps making silly visual puns with the 1941 masterpiece, it’s amazing to look at the script and see that almost the exact opposite has been done in every single case. A fairly simple story has been made to seem more complicated than it was, the main timeline zeroes in on the least dramatic sequence and the only framing device seemingly required is a few terse captions.

Which would all be fine – or at least tolerable – if the execution weren’t so grindingly tedious. The worst offenders are the lengthy scenes at the Hearst mansion where everybody rattles out historical exposition alternating with ersatz versions of famous bon mots, carefully timed so as to delicately overlap. But the cadence is relentless, monotonous, deadening. There are no actual people in this room. It’s like a ride at Disneyland – we glide smoothly past animatronic versions of Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg et al, reciting their familiar catchphrases. And at the end, I feel I know Mankiewicz less well than before. A big disappointment from such a talented team.

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