Image: Morning Picker
On seeing the trailer for David Fincher’s ravishing black and white biopic Mank, the first reaction must be, didn’t they already make that movie?
The creation of Citizen Kane, often ranked as Hollywood’s greatest film, was dramatized in the 1999 TV movie RKO 281.
While joyously self-deprecating and bitchy, and worth the price of admission just to see Melanie Griffith’s Marion Davies, RKO 281 can’t match Mank for ambition.
Mank’s parable: in 90 years the American political playbook hasn’t changed much.
Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, having fun with an actor’s dream script) flashes back and forth through time.
In the present (1940), he is a washed-up Hollywood loser-genius writing the screenplay to Citizen Kane for Orson Welles while he unsuccessfully sobers up in the desert.
Interspersed are a collection of glam flashbacks revealing Mank’s connection to Citizen Kane’s target, media mogul William Randolph Hearst and his mistress Marion Davies.
Throw in a corrupt Republican election campaign against a “socialist” Gubernatorial candidate and the modern parallels we are supposed to make emerge.
By the time Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried, glorious fun but upstaged by Oldman) starts talking about Hearst choosing President Roosevelt’s cabinet like he was casting a movie, it’s painfully clear.
This is a movie about President Trump and Rupert Murdoch.
It’s also “a movie about Hollywood” and like so many in that sub-genre, it has some hilarious in-jokes certain to fall flatter the farther you are from Hollywood and Vine.
Mank has no issue discussing Hollywood’s corrupt ancestry when it can easily do so and still make its point.
Hearst and MGM impresario Louis B. Mayer are easy targets and they glide through a villainous series of events with just enough charisma to leave them dignified, larger than life figures.
There’s plenty in the way of ironic zingers to go around, but little in the way of actual indictment.
Hollywood isn’t ready to make that movie about itself, not even for Netflix.
While Mank keeps the self-fellating tone that sank 2015’s screenwriter biopic Trumbo at bay, it still can’t help but be a little stoked on the iconography it’s dealing with.
One flashback reveals an office populated by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, S.J. Perelman, George Kaufman, George Schaefer, Joseph and Herman Mankiewicz and a secretary clad in nothing but gold pasties.
The effect is of Grandpa Simpson talking about wearing dresses in the 40’s.
“Oh, they had designers then!”
Mank’s eventual journey to self-satisfied confectionary is at least a fun watch.
All told, it’s a niche movie about an interesting cinematic epoch with a guaranteed Oscar-nominated performance by Gary Oldman.
The real surprise in the cast is Tuppence Middleton, whose dry performance as long-suffering Sarah Mankiewicz is reminiscent of Grace Kelly in The Country Girl.
The disappointment lies in the attempted modern parallel.
Mank shows Hollywood when it was artistically brave enough to take a mighty wack at a corrupt media baron, even one at the heart of its own dark system.
It also sadly proves in 2020, our Faustian/Hearstian equivalent, Rupert Murdoch, remains untouchable.
Movies like Mank can draw opaque parallels, but no matter the evil, direct attack is out of the question, even on Netflix.
Well, that’s showbiz.