How far you make it into David Fincher’s Mank can be determined by this simple litmus test: When you watch Turner Classic Movies, are your pants around your ankles? Even during the interview segments?
Those who answer “yes” are the likeliest to not just survive but enjoy the first 30 minutes or so of the film, a dramatization of the events that led legendary screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) to pen Citizen Kane. In setting the scene for this dishy exposé of Old Hollywood, the movie summons up a breathless procession of behind-the-scenes personalities who have become as revered by cinephiles as actual stars. Look, it’s Ben Hecht! And David O. Selznick! And Louis B. Mayer! All of them introduced exactly that swiftly and perfunctorily, like the ghost of Robert Osborne assembling a fantasy football team.
The breakneck pace of the introductions makes the first act a little hard to follow, compounded by the initial disorientation of the movie’s nonlinear structure. In the main narrative, Mankiewicz arrives at a California ranch, where he's faced with the daunting task of writing Kane for Orson Welles (Tom Burke) in 60 days while wrestling with his own bad habits. (Which ones? Here’s a clue: He’s a writer. Glug glug glug.)
The temporal hopscotching is just one element endemic to Kane that Mank winkingly but lovingly adopts. Another is quotability (or in this case, the fervent hope of same), with snarky patter flying non-stop from just about every mouth. It’s one thing to decide to make a movie about Citizen Kane, but setting yourself up as its aesthetic reflection takes more guts than sense.
Fortunately, the picture gets better once it calms down a bit from its initial, borderline-insufferable cutesiness. The segments set in Mankiewicz’ past reveal the corruption of the studio system (you’ll never look at Irving G. Thalberg the same way again), a moral rot that extended from the nascent Writers’ Guild into statewide politics and even international affairs. A watershed moment in Mankiewicz’ miseducation is watching studio heads conspire with Hearst to put down the gubernatorial candidacy of Upton Sinclair, the high-profile “idealist” socialist crusader they perceive as a mortal threat to their purportedly enlightened capitalism. The parallels to today’s sociopolitical landscape are intentional in the extreme, but they feel right and necessary. Every once in a while, I guess, a film that fancies itself utterly of the moment really does happen to be so.
The performances become richer as the runtime advances as well, moving past caricature into something more tangible. Oldman wrestles successfully with his schticky, tic-y instincts to make Mankiewicz a compelling case study in conscience. And as Davies, the unwitting inspiration for Kane’s far less nuanced Susan Alexander, Seyfried is sad and proud and simply adorable.
Even in its final stages, the movie doesn’t always know exactly what it’s about, and it’s constantly in danger of collapsing under the weight of its own self-regard. But it hits enough true, clear notes along the way to make it worth a watch. If it’s no Citizen Kane, it at least warrants tearing yourself away from TCM for a couple hours. Just pull up your pants.
(Mank premieres on Netflix Friday, Dec. 4. Our rating: 3 1/2 stars out of 5)
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