Mank has proven pretty polarizing in the short time it’s been available to the world: You love, you hate it, you haven’t seen it because 131 minutes feels like a really long time right now. Or you’ve never heard of it and have no idea what I’m talking about.
Recently released to Netflix, Mank is the latest venture from filmmaker David Fincher (The Social Network, Gone Girl), developed from a screenplay by his late father. Mank is about the writing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, a film you have either seen a hundred times, seen clips from in a film or English class, or never seen but have heard your parents (or grandparents) talk about it. Citizen Kane is arguably the most famous film of all time, and oft-cited as the best. Even if you haven’t seen it, you’ve seen or heard many references to it in film and TV that may have gone over your head.
Mank follows screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he struggles to finish Citizen Kane, and, later, get appropriate credit for his work. Mankiewicz, the son of Jewish immigrants from Germany, was already a successful writer by the time he tackled Kane, working in journalism and criticism before turning to the screen. In 1971, Pauline Kael — a famous film critic who was also the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Poland, and who was not afraid to voice a controversial opinion, like when she wrote about how much she hated Shoah — wrote an essay for the New Yorker about Welles, Mankiewicz, and who could claim authorship of Kane. It was a bombshell of an essay that scholars believe to be almost 100% fabricated, but the supposed conflicts Kael details provides us with much of the premise for Mank.
Did you know that you can sing “Mank” to the tune of the title song from the musical Mame? MaaAAAank. Anyway.
Mank is about Mankiewicz’s career, his conflicts within the Hollywood studio system, and his descent into alcohol use. Charles Dance (Game of Thrones) plays newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the inspiration for the main character of Kane, and Amanda Seyfried plays early Hollywood star Marion Davies, Hearst’s, shall we say, partner. Bill Nye (as in, the Science Guy) plays Upton Sinclair, the activist who wrote the novel The Jungle that you might have read in high school. I’d just like to repeat for anyone who does not plan on watching this film that Bill Nye the Science Guy plays Upton Sinclair.
And that leaves us with Gary Oldman as Mank. As Beanie Feldstein would say, it’s the titular role.
Best known among my age group as Sirius Black in the Harry Potter films, Oldman is an English actor whose accolades include an Academy Award, a $50 million net worth, and an unprovoked tirade against Jews in Hollywood that was so uncomfortable, he actually told the journalist to edit it out of the interview. Oldman’s rant was sparked, in part, by the supposed ostracization of Mel Gibson in Hollywood after his own antisemitic words became public along with his subsequent domestic violence-related restraining order and assertion that his then-partner would be to blame if she were “raped by a pack of [n-words].”
Specifically, Oldman stated in a 2014 Playboy interview that he had empathy for Gibson because they were in “a town that’s run by Jews” and had subsequently been made “an outcast, a leper, you know? But some Jewish guy in his office somewhere hasn’t turned and said, ‘That fucking kraut’ or ‘Fuck those Germans’, whatever it is? […] The policeman who arrested him has never used [the N word] or ‘that fucking Jew’?” (Gibson famously asked the officer arresting him for drunk driving if he was Jewish after stating that Jews have caused every war in the world.) Since the interview, both Oldman and Gibson have been nominated for Oscars, with Oldman winning in 2018.
Oldman later issued an apology that reads like it was penned by a publicist who Googled “the Jews.” (Did you know that we’re “the chosen people”?) The Anti-Defamation League then said that Oldman was basically doubling down on how Jews run Hollywood. The apology notes that “our business, and my own career specifically, owes an enormous debt” to the contributions of Jews throughout Hollywood history. This was only reinforced by the casting of Oldman as Mankiewicz.
Mankiewicz was not just a person who happened to be Jewish in a “it wasn’t an integral part of his life, so it doesn’t much matter who plays him onscreen” way. Mankiewicz was an editor at the American Jewish Chronicle. He lent money to a number of people fleeing Nazi Germany, which is clunkily exaggerated in the film. And even as he believed that American involvement in a pending European war would be disastrous, he wrote a screenplay warning about the rise of Nazism where a man named Adolf Mitler builds up a political party in Transylvania to wage war on France for their interracial fraternization. I can’t think of anything more Jewish than writing a sweeping allegorical story and then giving up and going for the on-the-nose naming of Mitler.
Even if Mankiewicz had been a secular Jew whose cultural identity was not paramount in his life, casting Oldman to play him is still uncomfortable at best and — dare I say — antisemitic at worst. Multiple Twitter users discussing the Mank-pocalypse suggested that Michael Stuhlbarg of A Serious Man has the nebbish energy that would have been perfect for a messy mensch like Mank. And as Oldman says… there’s not exactly a dearth of Jewish actors in Hollywood. In an age when a casting director’s go-to Jewish representation is a pale gentile with dark hair, casting a Jewish actor to explore the good, the bad, and the complicated nuanced reality of a life like Mankiewicz’s would have been refreshing. Nice. Indicative of a film that really values the critical thought process behind the building of characters and worlds.
As he campaigned for an Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour on the heels of the #MeToo movement, Oldman’s past caught up to him a bit. While the biggest headlines in the wake of his 2014 interview concerned Gibson and the insistence that “we’ve all said those things,” culture critic and podcaster Ira Madison III pointed out that Oldman had also lamented the fact that he’s not allowed to say homophobic and misogynistic slurs without social consequences.
Legal issues from his third marriage also came back into the spotlight, even as he consistently deflected questions about allegedly assaulting his then-wife, Donya Fiorentino, in front of their children. (Although legal disputes among high profile figures can be difficult to parse, it appears that the relationship may not have adhered to the abuser-abusee dichotomy that much media relies on to discuss abuse, and it’s possible that Oldman and his wife were both abusive to each other as they struggled with substance use. However, Fiorentino was also previously married to Fincher, Mank’s director, so it’s also possible that this a classic case of powerful men in Hollywood teaming up to silence a woman.)
I’m not telling you not to watch Mank because of Gary Oldman. You obviously need to judge a film by more than its poster, which, in this case, features Oldmank leading the cast like Joaquin Phoenix’s Joker. Instead, I’m suggesting that someone as talented and experienced as Fincher could capitalize on his vast resources next time he undertakes such a project and hire a damn dramaturg.