Mank is to the truth of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz what Citizen Kane was to the truth of William Randolph Hearst, which I suppose is fitting. What the film lacks in accuracy, however, it makes up for in the beautifully textured black-and-white photography of David Fincher, the inventive and alluring re-creation of old Hollywood, and the crackling dialogue of Fincher’s own father, Jack, who penned the screenplay. The picture makes much of Mankiewicz’s struggle between his own internal liberal ideals and the fact that he is, in essence, a kept corporate cog, one of a gaggle of screenwriters collected, fed, watered and otherwise maintained by the big studios in the 30s and 40s (see Barton Fink, for a darker rendition). However, the real Mankiewicz was no liberal, he and Hearst were not nearly so enmeshed and cozy, and neither man cared a whit about the California gubernatorial campaign of progressive Upton Sinclair, which is presented as the cause of their rupture. It is all hooey.
But boy, does this hooey have some moments. Jack Fincher never engages in caricature. Mankiwiecz is not tortured; as brilliantly played by Gary Oldman, he’s comfortable, irresponsible, casually cruel, and it nags at him. And when his indignation becomes righteous, he does not subdue the opposition with his wit and moral force. To the contrary, he’s compromised and often grotesque. And the heavies, in particular Hearst (Charles Dance) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), give as good as they get. In one scene, Thalberg tries to get Mankiewicz to toe the party line and, like all other studio employees, contribute to Sinclair’s GOP opponent. Thalberg is both solicitous of Mankiewicz but put-off by his casual, self-serving and spotty high-mindedness, and he sticks it to him. The scene reminded me of a great one in Good Night and Good Luck, between Edward R. Murrow (David Straitharn) and William Paley (Frank Langella) after the former has just been morally urgent and condescending and Paley reminds him that he is not above constraints:
Let’s walk very carefully through these next few moments. The content of what we’re doing is more important than what some guy in Cincinnati…
It’s what you’re doing, Ed. Not me. Not Frank Stanton. You. “CBS News”, “See It Now” all belong to you, Bill.
You wouldn’t know it.
What is it you want? Credit? I never censored a single program. I hold on to affiliates who wanted entertainment from us. I fight to keep the license with the very same politicians that you are bringing down and I never, never said no to you. Never.
I would argue that we have done very well by one another. I would argue that this network is defined by what the news department has accomplished. And I would also argue that never saying no is not the same as not censoring.
Really? You should teach journalism. You and Mr. Friendly. Let me ask you this: why didn’t you correct McCarthy when he said that Alger Hiss was convicted of treason? He was only convicted of perjury. You corrected everything else. Did you not want the appearance of defending a known Communist?
Similarly, the scene where Mankiewicz really sticks it to Hearst is not the crowd-pleasing tell-off a lesser writer would have delivered. In fact, Hearst is nonplussed, a fact that underscores the drunken cowardice of Mankiewicz while Hearst witheringly dispenses with him.
The Finchers’ lack of fealty to the truth is almost Hearst-esque in a “You furnish the pictures and I’ll furnish the war” sort of way (also fittingly, Hearst likely never said or wrote any such thing) and as such, its fanciful history is not offensive or overbearing. These are, after all, minor historical figures merely making a movie and imbuing false thoughts and actions to them doesn’t presage some sort of larger “truth” or ideological posture. Still, Orson Welles changed “Hearts” to “Kane.” Fincher probably could have called it “Monk.”
Still, the picture is dazzling to watch, often good fun, a decent companion to the Coen Brothers Hail, Caesar!.