It’s a good day to be alive Kings and Queens because today we’re going to talk about a new movie called Mank.
Mank is a 2020 drama film directed by David Fincher, available exclusively on Netflix. It tells the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz, a washed up writer who gets the opportunity to work with famed director Orson Welles on a project that ended up being known as Citizen Kane — often cited as one of the greatest films of all-time.
I did not like this movie, and it’s overwhelming critical acclaim has inspired a hatred for this film that I wanted to talk about for a little bit. I’d like to think I don’t revel in my ability to criticize, and I don’t intend to pick this movie apart, but it’s representative of a few different trends that really drive me crazy. Specifically critics who are up their own ass and people who try to valorize the past.
The things I want to talk about in this review are: The film’s assumption the audience cares about Citizen Kane. I want to talk about the indulgence of this movie. And I want to talk about how it’s purpose is flat and unearned.
The premise of this movie requires some knowledge of film history — so I want to take a moment to talk about that film history to better serve the rest of this review.
Citizen Kane is one of those cultural touchstones everyone “knows” about even without seeing it. You might assume you’ve captured all of its significance just through the osmosis of existing in a culture that has — apparently — been influenced by it so much. Alternatively, you’ve never heard of about the movie and don’t care. I actually think it’s ok to not know all of film history and still love the medium and talk about it critically. I think the mindset you need to know everything about the past is elitist gatekeeping. Even with that in mind, Citizen Kane is one of the few classic films I like. It is a surprisingly timeless film — even its editing and pacing are engaging for modern audiences — and that speaks to why it was so significant at the time of its release.
If I could summarize the importance of Citizen Kane: it was a movie that showed what movies could be. Prior to Citizen Kane, a lot of movies were — for lack of a better description — treated like an elaborate play. The camera was separated from the action, acting like an observer of a staged performance, rather than being part of a fictional world made specifically for film. It wasn’t until Citizen Kane the concept of a more active camera, and the use of montage, or framing could express ideas in a way totally unique to the film medium. It’s worth noting Citizen Kane popularized these artistic methods, but it was not the first one to do this. The most obvious example being Battleship Potemkin made in 1925 — a full sixteen years before Citizen Kane. I should also note, the director and star of Citizen Kane — Orson Welles — was famous BECAUSE of his inventive view on the art of performance. Prior to this movie he was already fairly famous for a radioplay based on H. G. Wells’ book War of Worlds. In that radioplay he made the decision to present the broadcast as if it were a REAL broadcast. There was no real effort to remind the audience this was a work of fiction — resulting in famous examples of ordinary people calling the police because they thought aliens were invading earth. The War of Worlds example ended up being a one-off — it didn’t redefine radio — but it gave Orson Welles a reputation that set the stage for the glowing reception to Citizen Kane that led many to claim it had set a new standard for film.
The technical marvel of Citizen Kane was enough to launch it into film history, but it became a true moment in American culture because of its story. Citizen Kane is about a troubled boy who grows up to become a self-made millionaire pursuing political power and status, ultimately dying dissatisfied with his life and unable to achieve true happiness. The story of “money and power won’t make you happy,” is such a cliché in today’s world, but the reason that sentiment is so well-known is partly because of Citizen Kane. I’m certain that wisdom predates the film but it was the movie that took that story and weaved it into the story of American life. And what made it even more impactful was the story was based on real life. Charles Foster Kane is an allegorical character for William Randolph Hearst, the billionaire newspaper tycoon who has a lot of similarities to the character — such as owning an elaborate castle, being active in American politics, and being generally seen as a depressive and power-hungry individual. As a character study, Citizen Kane isn’t meant to simply criticize people like Hearst, but really understand who they are and how they got that way. All of this made Citizen Kane incredibly affecting on general audiences back when it was released, and it’s ability to synthesize with greater American lore is why it’s still so relevant and watchable in the modern day. Of course the question of “who wrote Citizen Kane” is hotly disputed with some parties claiming it was all Mankewicz while others credit Orson Welles. There’s actually another movie called RKO 281 which is entirely about this writing dispute whereas in Mank it’s more of an afterthought.
Anyway that’s an abridged summary of why Citizen Kane is so highly regarded. For some amount of people, it’s impact can never be matched by any other creative work which is why those people still consider it the greatest film of all-time. And it’s more than that because to them it is something so noteworthy it’s impossible to imagine a person who hasn’t seen it. It’d be like finding a human being that doesn’t know what the Mona Lisa looks like or what All-Star sounds like.
Mank is very much a movie made for those people who idolize Citizen Kane enough to watch an aimless two-hour movie about how it was written. I can understand that these people exist but one of the reasons Mank is such a weird movie is because it is directed by David Fincher. I’ve come to see David Fincher as a director who represents rejecting… everything about the generation of people who like Citizen Kane.
Fincher is technically a boomer, but culturally I think he’s one of the defining voices of Generation X — largely in-part for his work on movies like Seven and Fight Club — two movies about the evaporation of a moral society and the rejection of traditional societal roles. In both Seven and Fight Club you see different violent responses to a culture that believed it gets to have the final word on every topic of conversation like how you should live your life, what’s considered moral, and even what art is considered “the best,” whatever that means. This mindset came from the Baby Boomer generation that grew up under unprecedented circumstances of wealth and prosperity, along with a resurgence in American individualism — which I personally believe became corrupted as a type of low-level psychosis. And Generation X was the first generation that experienced the mundane misery of constantly being told you’re wrong by this era of people who thought all problems were resolved because they didn’t have them and therefore its everyone else’s fault for not being like them. The oppression of opposing viewpoints was so widespread it gave birth to the postmodern movement — which largely derided the assumptions of prior eras in the only way that was allowed: with a detached sense of irony, functioning as a way to say what they really believed while providing a shield from criticism by claiming they were simply being ironic. Fincher’s greatest contributions to film were providing a mythos of what happens to people when they become disillusioned with the worldview that everything is so great and there’s nothing more fulfilling than corporate America. The people who left the theater thinking Fight Club was the greatest movie ever were quickly lectured about the importance of movies like Citizen Kane and a bunch of other shit that wasn’t relevant to their experience.
This is why it’s so bizarre Fincher is the director of Mank — a movie that assumes YOU are one of these people who hold Citizen Kane to such mythic esteem. If you are not one of those people — and there’s really no reason to assume anyone is — this movie is a total failure.
Need to know Citizen Kane
I think it’s very telling the movie’s only prologue to the story is some brief text that says “Orson Welles was lured to Hollywood by a struggling RKO Pictures to make any movie he wanted.” I think the obvious question is: Who the fuck is Orson Welles? Orson Welles died 35 years ago and it’s not like his work gets regularly trotted out in the mainstream so it seems like a stretch to assume people know the name at all — and it’s even more of a stretch to assume they know he directed Citizen Kane. Which by the way, I don’t think the words “Citizen Kane” are spoken until the epilogue of the film. So all that backstory you got from me about why this movie was made at all, nothing like that is in the movie. So there’s nothing to fill in people who don’t recreationally watch movies from 70 years ago.
Also Orson Welles is named in the opener but the movie isn’t actually about Orson Welles — it’s about Mankewicz — and we never really meet Mankewicz directly or get any explanation of who he is. To me, that speaks to the film’s assumption of who is watching this movie and who the movie was made for. If you’re lost in the first 30 minutes of the movie, that’s the creators choosing to filter you because they’re not interested in sharing this work with you. More on that later.
Even if you’ve seen Citizen Kane and know who Orson Welles and Herman Mankewicz are, the first act of this film drowns you in excessive nonvital information. For one, I think it’s fair to say we never get a real introduction to Mankiewicz. You can presume he’s important because he’s played by Gary Oldman in a cast otherwise made-up of nobodies, but there’s no pitch for why he’s a significant character in this story. It also doesn’t help the film has one of the most ineffective first 20 minutes I can think of.
The first scene of this movie shows Mank with a broken leg settling into a villa to write a script for Orson Welles. After that, we see a flashback of Mank and his wife — which I think is meant to set-up their relationship but the dialogue is so dense it’s not clear what’s being conveyed. Then the story flashes back again to a week prior to the opening scene to show how Mank broke his leg in the first scene. After that we get a quick scene at the villa again, but then the movie takes a huge departure from everything it’s set up so far to establish a congruent timeline of Mank’s experience in the Hollywood studio system, some number of years before he began writing for Welles. We get introduced to this congruent timeline and the studio world through a character that acts as the newcomer to the industry. This is typically a great way to invite the audience into a strange new world of characters. As they meet new people, we meet new people, and as they get explanations about the world, the audience gets explanations about the world. But this newcomer character isn’t significant at all and doesn’t exist for this function. He’s just a way to bring us back to Mank and once we meet Mank, that newcomer character is disposed of and the film resettles on its focus on Mank and acts like we’ve been with him the whole time. The subsequent scene is Mank and company pitching some unheard of movie while referencing a bunch of other classical Hollywood landmark films and filmmakers and it kinda goes from there. Now this summary I’m giving doesn’t make a lot of sense, but I just want to say it doesn’t get any better if you watch the fucking thing. It’s a film with a weak opener. I’d say it takes maybe a full hour — if not the entire duration of the movie — to realize what it’s supposed to be about.
Indulgence into film history
Which begs the question: What is this movie about? It doesn’t seem interested in setting up any character, or conflict, or plot of any kind. And the movie has a pretty capable crew behind it, so you know if they wanted to do any of those things they could have. It’s not like no one working on this movie didn’t know the first act was confusing. They just didn’t care.
Because the movie isn’t playing by the rules of other movies. If you view Mank as a film with the goal of providing a vicarious fantasy of being a fly on the wall in old Hollywood, all of its creative decisions make sense. It’s not interested in setting up the world, because it assumes you’re deeply familiar with this world and you just want to go there. It’s not interested in establishing the main character, because having a main character isn’t important to the goal of saturating in that world. And it really doesn’t care about your experience with the movie, because it’s not about serving the audience it’s about serving the filmmakers’ own indulgence. That’s why it so brazenly drops historical reference after historical reference, in a script loaded with dense dialogue that’d be impossible to follow without an accompanying textbook. I’m even pretty certain they went out of their way to replicate the tinny muddled audio that defined the early eras of film just for the sake of “authenticity,” never mind the fact it adds nothing but inconvenience to the viewer. They might as well have thrown in an intermission in the middle of this movie made exclusively for a platform you can pause at any time.
If you’re someone that has no love for this era of filmmaking, then the movie feels lifeless. And I’ve been thinking of a good metaphor for what watching this movie feels like. This is what I’ve come up with. It’s not unlike those scenes writers do sometimes. Where two characters are introduced and the writer wants to show you these two characters have a long history and like each other. So they have Character A tell Character B this nonsensical story and it ends with both of them laughing. The audience is not in on the joke they’re laughing at, but it’s ok because the point is not to tell an entertaining story. It’s to establish the relationship between these characters. This movie feels like the awkwardness that settles in as you’re waiting for a stupid story to be told so we can move on. Except nothing comes after that. You’re stuck in this perennial state of disinterest for the entire movie.
What’s so frustrating about this is it is a galling example of the gatekeeping elitism that I despise so much about film history buffs and the boomer generation in general. Oh, you don’t like watching movies from 70 years ago to augment your experience in the modern day? Well, when I was young and retarded like you I didn’t appreciate my elders either but once you achieve total parity with my views and opinions then you’ll really appreciate art for what it is. And I’ve never bought that argument. It has always seemed condescending. I think if I need to do work to understand why art is so important, then maybe it’s just not that important anymore. I don’t think I should need any supplemental work to enjoy a film. And if you don’t do that supplemental work or have that context, Mank is a dull bore of a movie about nothing.
If Mank is about anything it is an attempt to valorize the writer Herman Mankiewicz as an overlooked hero fighting against the evils of his era. The problem with that is I cannot think of anything more indulgent then portraying the story of heroics and valor from someone who just so happens to have the same job as you. It’s like when young journalists talk about how they’re giving the people a voice or writing the first draft of history. You work at Patch.com. You’re writing the first draft of my spam folder. It’s the same thing with filmmakers who believe there’s nothing more heroic than making movies. Don’t get me wrong, I love movies and many of my favorite movies have changed my life. If there is any pride to have over artistic creation it is knowing you can change an individual’s life by providing them an expression of a feeling or thought they couldn’t express on their own. There is something very beautiful about that, but it’s distinctly different from what this movie suggests about Mankiewicz’ impact.
Pretty far into this movie Mank finds himself in the inner circle of union bosses and political figures — as well as William Randolph Hearst — where he partakes in a variety of political discussions about socialism. There’s a subplot about Upton Sinclair running for Governor of California as a socialist — in fact the character is played by Bill Nye the Science Guy. Part of this subplot includes a friend of Mank admitting he’s taken contract work developing propaganda films discrediting Sinclair as a communist. This friend has some misgivings about his complicity in destroying Sinclair, but he’s struggling for work. Through this we see Mank develop a lot of sympathy for Sinclair, though he doesn’t do much to promote his candidacy other than making a bet during election night. You could say Mank’s experience watching Sinclair lose that election is part of what motivated him to write Citizen Kane in a way that pillories moneyed interests and power-hungry individuals.
And the film suggests this is why Mankiewicz has been forgotten to history. Clearly, the reason he was so discredited as the writer of the film is because he was ahead of the curve for fearlessly biting the hand that fed him. And I just don’t buy it that revision of history.
Film historians have revealed the early criticisms of Mankiewicz’ script was it was too complicated for general audiences with multiple timelines and nonlinear storytelling. As for his credit as writer — the dispute between him and Orson Welles had to do with a variety of on-set edits made by Orson Welles — and pushback from the studio marketing that wanted to suggest Orson Welles was a wunderkid who wrote, directed, and starred in a masterpiece. Either way, whatever valorizing you want to do for Mank you can easily apply to Orson Welles. But everybody already loves Orson Welles, so there’d never be a movie about that because it’d be kind of a no-brainer.
Instead this movie wants to suggest the alcoholic deadbeat who burned every bridge he ever made throughout his career truly had a heart of gold we just never knew about. And even that flawed individual had the power to change the world through his writing and his contributions to filmmaking. And I’m just not buying it.
Maybe if the film was any good then I wouldn’t care if it was ahistorical. Which is to say if this movie is historical, it’s still boring and confusing. But I see this potentially revisionist story as an extension of the indulgence that defines this entire movie.
At the same time, I feel bad hating the movie so much because it’s very easy for me to say David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. And it is obvious this was an intensely personal film for him because it was written by Jack Fincher — his father who died nearly 20 years ago. Jack Fincher — as far as I can tell — was kind of an unremarkable writer who never had a notable work that gained any real attention. I can imagine how making this movie was as much about respecting his father as it was valorizing Mankiewicz. Two writers who never really got the recognition they might have deserved. I can see the sentimentality and earnestness in those intentions, but when it comes to art your intent doesn’t really matter. What’s there to be experienced is beyond the scope of most people’s relationship with film and the movie makes no effort to invite them into that world and share why these people made an impact.
And it’s cringeworthy to see these critics pat each other on the back for being able to keep up with the obtuse storytelling in this film. It is as if they’re trying to convince one another they’re all in this exclusive club giving higher and higher accolades to a movie that’s just bad.
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