NEW YORK (CNS) — Films that show the creative process of an earlier Hollywood era love to dollop out sagacious pearls.
So it is with “Mank” (Netflix), in which MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) explains the film industry to screenwriter Joseph Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey).
“This is the business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory,” Mayer intones. “What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the magic of the movies, and don’t let anyone tell you different.”
Mayer’s not entirely an oracle, though. In a flashback to the early 1930s at San Simeon, the California estate of newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), Mayer is shown to dismiss political developments in Europe with a terse, “Hitler, schmitler!”
The context for all this is Mankiewicz’s famously blunt older brother — and fellow scribe — Herman’s (Gary Oldman) work on the screenplay for 1941’s “Citizen Kane.” Long considered one of the all-time great films for its virtuoso camera work and sharp-edged portrayal of the corruption of a Hearst-like media baron, the movie’s script — according to “Mank,” at least — incorporated many of Herman’s own experiences.
Mankiewicz here explains his approach concisely: showing “how wealth and influence can crush a man.” Producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton), scanning draft pages of the script, reflects, “I never knew someone could care that much about a sled.”
Although Mankiewicz won the Academy Award for best original screenplay, the principal glory has long gone to the picture’s director, co-writer and producer, Orson Welles (Tom Burke).
Welles outlived the alcoholic Mankiewicz by 30 years and was a sonorous and chatty guest on TV talk shows. His was also the more interesting story since “Citizen Kane” was his debut at the helm — and premiered five days before his 26th birthday.
Directed by David Fincher from a screenplay by his late father, Jack, “Mank” aims to recalibrate the historical balance in its title character’s favor. In doing so, it predictably minimizes Welles’ contribution. He merely pops in from time to time at the ranch where Mankiewicz, laid up with a broken leg, is dictating the script to a secretary.
Viewer familiarity with “Citizen Kane” is not essential. But those who do know the film will quickly see that while Welles’ work chugs along, “Mank” likes to stop and philosophize over its many expressionistic pools of vinegar.
Fincher adopts a joyless approach, one that focuses assiduously on the pain involved in creativity. Thus none of the characters are ever shown to be having a good time, even Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), whom her lover successfully ensconced as a star at MGM in spite of what might charitably be termed her modest talent.
Davies shrugs off public adulation: “People think if you’re on the cover of Modern Screen, you know something.”
Mankiewicz is also shown to be working out his guilt over his accidental encouragement of some infamous fake news of 1934 — newsreels produced at MGM to demonize Upton Sinclair, the Socialist candidate for governor of California.
To the extent that a morality fable can be rooted in a screenwriter’s conscience, “Mank” does its job splendidly. But it’s more likely to appeal to devotees of classic cinema who may not care too much about the nuances of past personalities and events.
The film contains mature themes, including adultery, and some crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III — adults. The Motion Picture Association rating is R — restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
Jensen is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.
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