Herman Mankiewicz at work in bed


Mank is the story, well known to film nerds, of the writing of Citizen Kane, for many the greatest film ever made. More exactly it’s two stories, one about writer Herman Mankiewicz dishing the dirt on press baron William Randolph Hearst (his model for press baron Charles Foster Kane) and his paramour Marion Davies, the other about director Orson Welles doing Mankiewicz out of a screen credit for his work.

Inserted almost as an afterthought is yet another story – about the socialist Upton Sinclair and his campaign to become governor of California, and how his guns were spiked by the movie studios.

Installed at a secluded cabin in the Mojave desert with a typewriter, a secretary (Lily Collins) and a minder in the shape of actor and Welles associate John Houseman (Sam Troughton), the alcoholic Mankiewicz is dried out and put under strict orders to churn out the screenplay, which Welles will later polish into the finished product. Early pages are “a bit of a jumble… a hodgepodge of talky episodes,” Houseman complains to Mank, handily nailing a problem with this film. It’s the screenplay, by Jack Fincher, father of director David. It’s verbose, explicatory and vaingloriously constructed in Citizen Kane fashion as a series of flashbacks setting out to explain the character of Mankiewicz.

This is a tragedy because this film is clearly a labour of love, gorgeously crafted by Fincher and a production team including DP Erik Messerschmidt and musicians Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But the screenplay’s tin ear for dialogue starts to drag all the film’s other artistic decisions into question, most obviously David Fincher’s decision to shoot the thing as a facsimile of a black and white 1940s movie, down to crackly atmospherics on the soundtrack and visual artefacts on the “film stock”. It should be immersive; it seems just cute.

As, in flashback, we follow Mank’s glittering, booze-swamped trail through Hollywood, and his cagey relationship with Hearst (Charles Dance), Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and the mogul’s court, there’s plenty to like for lovers of old Hollywood stories – about Louis B Meyer, Irving Thalberg, Ben Hecht et al – though I suspect that the sort of people who like these sort of stories will have heard the ones we get here. The one, for example, about the Marx brothers mischievously grilling hot dogs in Irving Thalberg’s office because they were sick of his no-shows.

Lily Collins comes out of it best, as the prim but flinty British secretary delegated to keep Mankiewicz’s nose to the typewriter while he dries out and knocks out the screenplay for Kane in record time. Gary Oldman as Mank you can’t fault really, but it’s difficult to tell whether his performance is too mannered for the film or the film is too mannered for his performance. Or, again, it could just be the dialogue – Mank is funny, the screenplay keeps insisting, and while there is the odd zinger, much of his “wit” is baffling. Seeing a giraffe on Hearst’s estate while out walking with Marion, Mank demonstrates his rapier repartee by observing drily, “Now that’s sticking your neck out.” Both Oldman and Seyfried look a little embarrased.


Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies in full party gear
Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) at one of Hearst’s glittering parties


It is a film full of unquestionably fantastic performances in minor roles – Arliss Howard is superb as the constipated conservative studio boss Louis B Meyer, Ferdinand Kingsley similarly great as Thalberg, the “Boy Wonder” head of production at MGM, and Tom Burke is persuasive in a tricky role as a silky (still young, still slim) Orson Welles. But Jack Fincher’s screenplay is most interested in the treacherous Mankiewicz’s relationship with Marion Davies – a talentless bimbo if you go along with the Citizen Kane view of Charles Foster Kane’s mistress; a sensitive, clever and wise woman devoted to her older husband and aware of the mercenary nature of Hollywood in Mank. Along with Collins, Amanda Seyfried comes out of this film best, and is pretty much perfect as Davies too.

The fact that Welles in real life denied that Marion Davies was his model for Kane’s wife, Susan, and that there were many other possible inspirations for Charles Foster Kane, that’s not addressed at all. Which somewhat torpedoes some of the claims that this film tells it like it is.

The political afterthought – the Depression and failure of capitalism, growing unrest on the streets, the rise of socialism, Upton Sinclair and the conniving of the studios to neutralise him – deserves a film all of its own but ends up shoehorned into a space already tied up in knots trying to tell other stories. Bizarrely, contrarily, it’s actually the most interesting bit of it all – “fake news” and all that.

Fincher at his best, Fight Club or The Social Network, is trenchant, urgent and playful, but Mank has none of those qualities. For all its huge budget, its costumes (“gowns” say the credits, which also prefers “screen play” to “screenplay”) and its pained attention to detail, Mank comes across like three or even four decent B movies fighting for air.







© Steve Morrissey 2020





The Social Network

Rooney Mara and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network



It’s often said that Kids Today can’t concentrate, that they don’t love words the way their parents did. Well, they flocked in the droves to see The Social Network, an old fashioned, plot driven, very talky film that seems aimed at people capable of mastering fine detail, people with an almost legal mindset. Regardless of the true state of the ADHD generation – isn’t it obvious that anyone who sits and plays a computer game for hours on end demonstrably has no problem with concentrating? – The Social Network tells the story of one of its generation’s figureheads, for good or ill: Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder. In particular it spins on the relationship between Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss twins, Cameron and Tyler, the money brothers who spent years pursuing Zuckerberg through the courts because, they claimed, he either stole their idea or failed to compensate them adequately for their input on the original FaceMash project. In the way that Facebook hooks people up, The Social Network mashes together a lot of fine talent – and the whole really is greater than the sum of the parts. We have Aaron Sorkin’s fast, involving dialogue – the opening scene between Zuckerberg and a date (Rooney Mara) tells us everything we need to know about the subject’s personality, his attitude to women, his intelligence, his arrogance, his obsession (she says obsessed, he says motivated; Sorkin lets us decide). David Fincher is the perfect directorial choice too, a guy obsessed with process and function (you only have to see Seven to know that), whose muted pallette of oranges and browns, low lighting, and decision to pump Trent Reznor’s music up high – suggesting intense brain activity, the frenzy of creativity, the buzz a bright idea delivers – allows the viewer to scope the areas where words cannot go. And around one hour or so in, it might suddenly hit you that Jesse Eisenberg isn’t actually Mark Zuckerberg, such is the perfection of his playing of this character – charming, yes, but just this side of overweening – even though Eisenberg is clearly too old to be playing a 19 year old.

In terms of plot the film breaks down into how it was done – how hacking into the personal files Harvard kept on its students (a late-night computer prank fuelled by sexual rancour and a feeling of social exclusion) gave birth almost magically to a once-in-a-generation megacorp. And then how that idea was subsequently monetised (enter Justin Timberlake as Napster guy Sean Parker, Mephistopheles dressed as a cruising shark). Running like a sore under this rise-and-rise plot strand are the Winklevosses, the socially connected (in all the right but old ways) brothers about to be shafted by a new paradigm. The Winklevoss stuff injects an old-fashioned courtroom drama ambience, and – set in brightly lit lawyers offices and Harvard professors’ studies, all suited and booted – provides relief from the bars and bedrooms and really lets Sorkin crack wise. Fast moving and littered with just enough references to MySQL and Apache, The Social Network entirely succeeds in making us feel like we’re inside with the new kids on the block, not outside with… er… us.



© Steve Morrissey 2014



The Social Network – at Amazon





The Social Network

Justin Timberlake and Jesse Eisenberg in The Social Network


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



3 October



The Mickey Mouse Club debuts, 1955

On this day in 1955, Walt Disney launched The Mickey Mouse Club on the ABC television network. Essentially a variety show that made stars of its mini-vaudevillians (named Mouseketeers), it was hosted by a number of adult comperes. Initially this was Jimmy Dodd, who would intersperse performances by the kids and old episodes of shows such as The Hardy Boys with a song and a homily of his own composing, thus setting the tone for the MMC – sunny, positive, virtuous. The show continued until its cancellation in 1959, but then continued to be shown in popular syndicated repeats on US television. Those reruns were still being shown when the show was revived in 1977, using the same basic formula (theme days, cartoons, episodes of serials, chunks of movies) for a short run. And it was revived again in 1989, the mix augmented now by music videos, comedy sketches, and live performances by the Mouseketeers. Among the Mouseketeers in this final 89-95 run were Keri Russell (91-93), though it was the class of 93-95 which proved particularly noteworthy. It contained Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.



The Social Network (2010, dir: David Fincher)

The film about the creation, early days and volcanic rise of Facebook, and its disputed (what the film is all about) creator Mark Zuckerberg could be said to belong to any number of people. For sure, it’s a David Fincher product, slick, beautiful, well paced and confident. But most of those adjectives could also be applied to Aaron Sorkin, who wrote it. And what of Jesse Eisenberg, as geeky Zuckerberg? Or Rooney Mara as the girl who dumps him. Or Armie Hamer as the Winklevoss twins (the “Winkelvi”) whom Zuckerberg swindles/beats (delete according to taste for litigation) in the race to set up a Bebo-style chatspace for university students – Facemash, Zuckerberg initially called it. The casting and writing are so assured in this film that no matter who we’re with, even Mara, who’s not in the film for long, while they’re on screen it’s their film. Which brings us to Mickey Mouse Club alumnus Justin Timberlake. This surely is his best role and he is in some respects the beating heart of the film, playing Sean Parker, the file-sharing-site Napster inventor who swoops in late to pick up something bright glinting in the sunlight. His involvement, advice and money enabled Facebook to leapfrog any number of hurdles, got it its first serious investment from PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and set it on the road to where it is now. In the process Parker became Facebook President. But is he a good guy or a bad guy? An enthusiast for new media or an opportunist? The beauty of Timberlake’s performance is that he makes Parker an immensely attractive character, the person with whom Zuckerberg forms the alliance that mattered when it mattered. In the process Parker might have stolen the soul of Facebook, or Zuckerberg might have given it to him willingly, in return for the untold riches that Parker was dangling under his nose. In essence it’s Faust updated, Faustbook, with Timberlake as Mephistopheles. And he knows damn well that that’s what this role is all about. You can almost smell the sulphur coming off the screen.



Why Watch?


  • Give or take the odd disputed fact – and the lawyers have been all over this film – the history of the founding of Facebook
  • The breakout role for Armie Hammer, as the Winklevoss twins
  • Trent Reznor’s great soundtrack
  • Sorkin’s script makes this a movie for anyone who loves words – no knowledge of PHP or MySQL required


© Steve Morrissey 2013



The Social Network – at Amazon