Is ‘Mank’ as fascinating as it thinks it is?

Let’s face it, writing is a boring subject. The process of putting words onto a page and shaping them into something great, although it sounds like it could be interesting to watch, actually looks like this: a pale, introverted, coffee-addicted person sits at a desk (or in a bed) and waits. Then they wait some more. Then they might do a bit of typing, decide what they just wrote was rubbish, delete it. Then more waiting. Perhaps they go to the kitchen and get a snack (cereal, noodles, dry toast). Then they come back to the unforgiving glare of the blank screen, maybe do some crying or shouting into a pillow, wait some more. This could go on for weeks. Finally, a little trickle of something – like when you laugh so hard that a tiny bit of wee comes out – appears on the page. They realise, with graceful humility, that they are responsible for this crumb of something that has emerged before them as if by magic. Then it’s time to open a new doc and start drafting the Oscar speech. 

Sounds like a fun watch, no? Well if we’re judging Mank, David Fincher’s 2020 movie about the writing of Citizen Kane, purely on verisimilitude – then surely Mr Fincher should be awarded five stars (and ten Oscars *eye roll emoji*). Because this movie is boring, with a capital B. At this point in the review it would be customary to give a brief synopsis of the story, but even Wikipedia’s plot summary was too dull to fathom so I’ll just say this: Gary Oldman lies in a room with a broken leg and goes on about stuff. Stuff which may or may not be related to the development and writing of the Citizen Kane screenplay. Sometimes Orson Welles (played by Tom Burke) comes into the room and stands around also talking about stuff.  

There is over two hours of this. Charles Dance pops up in flashbacks to do some Serious Acting. As does Amanda Seyfried. Tuppence Middleton (born 1987) plays the wife of Gary Oldman (born 1958) for some reason, and now and then she calls him and talks really fast into the phone (you know, like they did in the olden days?). Every actor is bringing their A-Grade performance; as they spout lines of endless, turgid dialogue you can see the glow of hope in their eyes, like they are thinking: ‘wow. I’m in a David Fincher movie. He is a genius. I am going to give it my all.’ 

Just a casual 29-year age difference, nothing to see here

But even with this assemblage of distinguished actors trying their absolute best, and gorgeous cinematography, and scenes shot on authentic old-timey cameras so that we really feel as if we’re watching a Golden Age classic, the movie just does not come to life. It’s dry, and long, and presumes itself to be fascinating. It’s one of those films that is really hard to concentrate on because your mind keeps wandering, and when it’s over you realise you have no idea what just happened. ‘Maybe I’m just too stupid to get it?’, you think. Or maybe writing is an unfilmable subject? Surely, if master of the craft Sir David Fincher can’t spark my interest in the world of words (bearing in mind that I am a writer, so I should already be kind of interested), is there any hope for anyone else? 

As my mind was doing all this musing to distract me from the boring stuff happening on the screen, I thought back to one of my all-time favourite films, Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd. (1950). That, too, is a story about writing a screenplay set in Hollywood’s glorious Golden Age. There’s no point comparing the two, because one is a Wilder film and one isn’t, but Mank is so clearly trying to imitate that inimitable voice, that seething emotional tension and lyrical dialogue that sets a Wilder picture apart. Of course, it is possible to make an enthralling movie about writing, but few directors (or screenwriters, ironically) have managed to capture its magic.

Mank is available to fall asleep to on Netflix.

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