Nothing ever could be or ever will be “Citizen Kane.” It is the insurmountable climax of American cinema. And we know this is true because all the people who know things about movies say that it’s true. If they didn’t say it was true, they wouldn’t be people who know things about movies, as testifying to the greatness of “Citizen Kane” is really the only criterion distinguishing those who truly know and appreciate the art of film — excuse me, cinema — from the rest of you vulgar, repulsive, Marvel-guzzling philistines. Maybe if you read more François Truffaut you would understand.
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.” However, 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 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 contradictory desires of the human soul — “Mank” is a Joel Osteen sermon. You get the gist, and a sense of the characters involved and a pleasant, palatable moral that applies to your own life in your own time to take home with you when it’s finished — but nothing especially poignant.
The foundation of a great story is all right there. And yet, it seems to be this overabundance of rich material that ultimately causes ‘Mank’ to sink. It can’t figure out what it wants to be.”
Telling the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz — known familiarly to friends and colleagues as Mank, portrayed with bone-dry sardonicism by Gary Oldman — during his two monthlong stint writing the script for “Citizen Kane” on a ranch in Victorville, California, where he had been set up by Orson Welles in an effort to remove the writer from his typically careless lifestyle and better focus on the project at hand.
The setup presents a candy store’s worth of potential narrative avenues: the tension that comes from the flustered Mank’s scrambling to craft a story in time to meet Welles’ looming deadline, the strained relationship between Mank and publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, upon whom the film was based and who launched a notorious smear campaign against it prior to its release, and more. The foundation of a great story is all right there. And yet, it seems to be this overabundance of rich material that ultimately causes “Mank” to sink. It can’t figure out what it wants to be.
“The narrative is one big circle, like a cinnamon roll, not a straight line pointing to the nearest exit,” Mank said to “Kane” producer John Houseman in an early scene. “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours. All you can hope is to leave the impression.”
That may be true for “Kane,” which swirls around and around through the various episodes of its central protagonist’s life until finally reaching its ambiguous, though nonetheless deeply relatable, center.
But “Mank” is a bit more like an apple fritter. A big, lumpy mess of meandering storylines and narrative forms that seem to constantly be folding over one another with no particular rhyme or reason and which ultimately add up to something that’s light, sweet and enjoyable but not particularly filling.
It seems the film is meant to be a character study that parallels that of “Kane” — this particular cinnamon roll offering a glimpse into the tumultuous soul of Mankiewicz, constantly flashing back and forth between scenes of a writer scribbling out what will eventually become a great Hollywood classic and sequences that depict his checkered relationship with the hyper-politicized structures of the film and media industries — dictated by Hearst and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer magnate Louis B. Mayer — a structure clearly modeled after the nonlinear sequencing that “Kane” popularized.
However, within this structure, the film attempts at times to be a zany, Coen brothers-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 — with unmotivated dialogue, sporadic, melodramatic plot points, and a contrapuntally jazzy Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross score — for two hours until the film’s merciful end.
There isn’t enough focus to make a real impact, and there isn’t enough fun to make it a purely enjoyable waste of two hours. Instead, the whole film seems to be making itself up as it goes along, leading to a final product that is lukewarm at best.
Scotty Powell can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.