The 400-Word Review: Mank
By Sean Collier
December 4, 2020


Making a movie about a great screenplay is a risky proposition. Unless the latter film is itself a masterpiece, it’s like singing an off-key ditty about why another song is really good.

Sidle up next to a classic and your flaws are going to show.

That’s not to say “Mank,” the loose biopic of “Citizen Kane” scribe Herman Mankiewicz by David Fincher, is a bad film. It might even be a pretty good film. Its ambitions outstrip its capabilities, however, leaving a monochrome reminiscence of a type of moviemaking it cannot entirely emulate.

Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a famous wit and scribe who emerged as a major literary figure in New York before becoming a sort of proto-script doctor in golden-era Hollywood, is depicted as he begins writing “Citizen Kane.” He’s on the outs with most of polite Hollywood due to a combination of politics, boozing and gambling, but rising megastar Orson Welles (Tom Burke) sees Mankiewicz as the perfect writer for a sprawling film of great importance.

As he’s propped up by a badly underwritten secretary (Lily Collins), Mankiewicz draws inspiration from his many encounters with longtime frenemy William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Mankiewicz had a political falling out with Hearst — underlined by heavy boozing at some of Hearst’s famous parties — but was close with Hearst’s beloved mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Davies — or, more accurately, Seyfried — occupies a place of outsized influence on both Mankiewicz and the film, representing the writer’s conflicted feelings about Hollywood and his role in it. It’s an intriguing setup, though it might have been more fully developed, particularly at the expense of dispensable scenes of old-Hollywood hijinks.

The film has a number of affectations — fake cigarette burns indicating reel changes, typewritten script pages appearing to mark scene transitions, slow fade-outs — to place it more firmly in a bygone era, as if we hadn’t noticed. “Mank” eventually settles into intrigue in the manner of a restless dog finally locating a spot to lie down; it gets around to a good number of scenes and thoughts worthy of its ambitions and talent (cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt does award-worthy work).

It’s a pretty good film. It’s enjoyable, well performed and very careful. Mistaking it for greatness, however, is a symptom of enchantment at the Hollywood wist “Mank” should’ve known better than to shamelessly peddle. There’s a contradiction in selling what you deconstruct.

My Rating: 7/10

“Mank” is streaming on Netflix.