I really wanted to like this movie. It’s got a great premise (the troubled creation of the movie Citizen Kane), a great cast, great writing. And it certainly looks good. But it didn’t work for me.
Herman Mankiewicz was a reporter who went to Hollywood and found success as a screenwriter for MGM studios around 1930. Early in his career, he attracted the favorable attention of William Randolph Hearst, and he became friends both with Hearst and his long time mistress Marion Davies. Barely 10 years later, Mank was writing a movie script expose of Hearst, which particularly trashed the reputation of Marion Davies. How did that come to be?
David Fincher finds an answer, of sorts, in the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of the novelist Upton Sinclair. Sinclair played in a wonderful cameo by Bill Nye the Science Guy) ran on an economic platform to the left of FDR and, not surprisingly, lost. Hollywood executives were Republicans at that time (Louis B. Mayer was the Chairman of the California Republican Party) and movie moguls contributed heavily to the Republican candidate. Not willing to leave anything to chance, MGM sponsored a series of fake news radio spots and newsreels, in which dirty hoboes and people with dusky skin tones expressed support for Sinclair, while nice white people expressed their fears of “socialism.” The fake news spots were bankrolled by Hearst and produced by Irving Thalberg, the studio wunderkind best known today as the name on a Hollywood award for philanthropy. So much is true.
In the movie, Mank is all-in for Sinclair. He contributes to the campaign, betting money he doesn’t have, and openly refuses Mayer’s request that all of his writers “voluntarily” contribute to the Republican campaign. The guy who directs the fake news spots was a friend of Mank’s and goes into a tailspin. Mank is angry when he finds out that Hearst bankrolled the spots and is out for revenge. This part of the story appears to be little more than Fincher’s invention. We have no idea what his politics were, although he did (as shown in the movie) act as a paid sponsor for German Jewish refugees. He did not refuse Mayer’s strongly worded suggestion that his employees contribute to the Republican gubernatorial campaign, although others did. And there is no evidence the guy who created the fake news spots ever felt any remorse about it – he certainly didn’t end up the way the guy in the movie did.
The story of a young man with a lot of potential who destroys himself with alcoholism and an uncontrolled gambling habit, is the stuff of tragedy. Barely 10 years in 1940, his career was on the skids. So when Welles came calling and asked him to dish the dirt on Hearst, he readily agreed – he needed the money. If he was trying to revive his career, it failed. He shared the screenwriting Oscar with Welles, but the two never worked together again. Barely 10 years later, Mank was dead, his health irretrievably ruined by alcoholism. But obviously that wasn’t the movie that David Fincher wanted to write.
The movie does have its enjoyable parts. The photography is great, the writing is snappy, and it’s fun to spot the famous names in the writers’ room.. Amanda Seyfried finds exactly the right line in her portrayal of Marion Davies – a woman who knows how the world works and exactly what trade offs she is making, but who hasn’t forgotten the difference between right and wrong.
See it if you want. But it’s a work of fiction. On Amazon Prime.
Fun Fact (from the movie): One of the guys working with Welles at this time was John Houseman, familiar to younger audiences as the crusty old professor in The Paper Chase.
Funnier Fact (not from the movie): Sinclair’s campaign slogan was EPIC (End Poverty in California). Although he lost, there were some EPIC candidates down ballot who won, and the guy who won the 1938 gubernatorial election was a Democrat with a similar platform. There was even a publication called the EPIC weekly. One associate editor of the weekly, who lost his campaign for the state legislature, decided to quit politics and write science fiction to retire his campaign debt. His name was Robert Heinlein.
Once upon a time, Hollywood was fascist and Robert Heinlein was a socialist. The auras of the two institutions must have crossed as they were making their separate journeys across the political universe. How did we avoid the Cosmic Karma Explosion?