Movie Review: Mank
By Matthew Huntley
December 19, 2020
There’s something to be said for a film that incentivizes you to perform a deep dive into its subject matter right after you watch it. David Fincher’s “Mank” is such a film, one that makes your level of interest in Hollywood history or even historical accuracy (which is not to say this film is necessarily historically inaccurate) beside the point, because no matter what, it engages you with its atmosphere, its dialogue, its performances and the way all of its components coalesce into an experience you wish would keep on going. It’s unique and fascinating in the way it feeds us so much information yet remains entertaining and accessible, and there’s little doubt Fincher and his team were purposely trying to emulate the very film “Mank” chronicles the inception of.
That latter film would be “Citizen Kane” and this film’s title character would be its screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz. “Mank” is both a dramatic biography of Mankiewicz’s turbulent career and a period piece about 1930s Hollywood, and from its opening frame, Eric Messerschmidt’s black and white cinematography, Kirk Baxter’s editing, Ren Klyce’s sound design and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s music transport us to this distinct time and place. And even though such production values are integral to any film, they deserve special mention here because they strike us so immediately and maintain a presence throughout. However, Fincher, being the fastidious filmmaker he undoubtedly must be, is careful not let them become ostentatious.
In fact, the film’s technical achievements become secondary as soon as we meet Herman (Gary Oldman), or “Mank,” as he is known to his cohorts. By the time Hollywood’s first sound pictures came to fruition in the late 1920s, Mank was already one of the industry’s most sought after and respected screenwriters, known for crafting witty, acerbic and dialogue-heavy scripts, and in 1940, he was recruited by a 24-year-old hotshot filmmaker named Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write a story.
What kind of story? Any story. At the time, RKO Pictures had just given the gifted Welles complete autonomy to make a movie about any subject he wanted and Welles hired Mank to write it. Their collaboration would eventually be realized as “Citizen Kane” and the two would actually share screenwriting credit, not to mention the film’s only Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, although controversy remains over how many of the words and screen direction were actually penned by Welles.
Whatever the case, “Citizen Kane” wouldn’t have become the highly revered classic it now is without Welles and Mank as the creative forces behind it, and “Mank” takes on the ambitious task of chronicling the project’s journey, specifically its story and screenplay, the seed of which was planted into Mank’s head about a decade before Welles met him. Taking place over 10 years, the film not only suggests the literal events that likely shaped what Mank eventually wrote into “Kane” but also underlines just how large a role personal experience and the human condition play in any creative endeavor. The latter is why “Mank,” despite being about a very select business and group of people, resonates so powerfully and feels universal — it makes us take to heart the notion that everything we see, hear and do now may one day contribute to something we pursue later.
What’s interesting about “Mank” is that our admiration for it is somewhat comparable to our appreciation for “Kane,” meaning it grows greater over time. You may already know this, but “Kane” wasn’t immediately lauded, or even seen, by the general public upon its initial release in 1941. It wasn’t until its revival nearly 15 years later, after it had been a box-office failure, and then in the decades since, that it started topping several “best ever” lists. Of course, much of its low-profile status was due to it having initially limited distribution (more on this in a bit), but even so, like any great film, “Kane” requires us to reflect on it before we fully realize just how great and carefully crafted it is. Its deepest, most visceral effects, beneath its incredible production design, cinematography and editing, become more felt as time goes by.
“Mank” is similar, because for its first quarter or so, it seems like Fincher and his team are perhaps just showing off their technical resources and emulating their source (it’s deliberate that “Mank” looks, sounds and transitions between its scenes the same way “Kane” does). However, once we orient ourselves to the film’s time and place and take it upon ourselves to focus less on the ornamentations of the production and more on the mission of the story and words of the actors, we realize the film’s substance has been there all along. To its credit, “Mank” was never really showing off so much as asking us to keep up with its energy and rhythm.
One of the ways it does this is through the late Jack Fincher’s (David’s father) screenplay, which assertively yet clearly jumps back and forth across multiple timeframes (the film cleverly uses typed out screen headings to key us in on when and where we are, a neat device that luckily never becomes gimmicky). In its present 1940, in Victorville, CA, an indisposed Mank, having recently suffered a broken leg in a car accident, is put up in a remote ranch house. It’s here where Welles’ collaborator and producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) tells the alcoholic writer he’ll have 90 days to complete his script, the words of which he’ll dictate to a hired secretary named Rita Alexander (Lily Collins).
Whether or not Oldman’s depiction of Mank as an insufferable, privileged and insensitive know-it-all is accurate isn’t as relevant as Oldman disappearing into the role and creating a unique albeit believable human character. It’s remarkable to think this is the same actor who played Sid Vicious in “Sid and Nancy,” Zorg in “The Fifth Element” and Winston Churchill in “Darkest Hour,” all very different types, but what can you say other than the man has range, and we buy him as the brazen yet, as we’ll see, compassionate, braggart he portrays here.
Along with those cast members already mentioned, the film’s long list of other actors and actresses prove just as convincing and enthusiastic as its star. Each seems to be aware they’re not only depicting a touchstone moment in Hollywood history but creating something special in and of itself. The ensemble includes Tom Pelphrey as Herman’s brother Joseph, another Hollywood heavy hitter; Arliss Howard and Ferdinand Kingsley as MGM studio heads Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg, whose methods of management and conservative politics clash with Mank’s progressivism; Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s patient and loving wife Sara (“Why do you put up with me?” is a question that gets asked many times throughout their marriage and one day she finally gives Mank a realistic answer); and Amanda Seyfried as actress and comedienne Marion Davies, who has principles and a mind of her own but often lets safety, security and image overshadow them, much to Mank’s disappointment.
And finally there’s Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst, the domineering, deep-voiced media tycoon whose friendship with Mank starts to decline once Mank begins to see just how ruthless and contemptible Hearst can be. And so, it was assumed Hearst served as inspiration for the title character in “Kane,” which did not paint its self-involved, complicated protagonist in the most positive light, hence why Hearst prohibited any mention of the film in his broadly read newspapers and used his pull in Hollywood to limit its run and, consequently, its viewership.
But it wasn’t just Mank’s interaction with and knowledge of Hearst that found its way into “Kane.” “Mank” navigates us through the many current events; news headlines; bureaucratic meetings; hoity-toity parties; back-scratchings; back-stabbings; political rallies; elections; personal tragedies and revelations; etc. that all likely etched themselves into Mank’s hyperactive, analytical brain, which he used to concoct his “Kane” script.
What’s remarkable about Fincher’s script is just how seamlessly it weaves together all its people and happenings and presents us a narrative that’s not only intelligent but coherent. It also avoids chalking Mank’s final product up to any one person or thing but rather a composite of everything he’s witnessed and learned over the years.
In addition to its captivating details, the film stirs us with its broader commentary on how human nature and politics can remain so consistent over time. It reminds us the issues that drove and divided people on opposite sides of the political spectrum from nearly a century ago aren’t drastically different from those that divide the left and right today. On the one hand, this is disturbing and depressing because it makes us think it’s always going to be this way, that our two sides will never find common ground. On the other, the film is reassuring and gives us hope because it allows us to see, as of 2020, just how far we’ve come to better ensure more truths are revealed and more voices are heard, even if the underlying issues remain unresolved.
“Mank” serves not only as an entertaining history lesson but also an important sociological one. It encourages us to stay alert, engaged and concerned about the ongoings in the world. As a film, it has several layers and moving parts that Fincher finds a way to balance and one of the best things he does is assume the audience is smart and intellectually curious. He wants us to really consider and take part in the film’s conversations about politics, equity, social justice, alcoholism, suicide, loyalty, self-acceptance, etc. It’s an exceptional film not only because of its design and substance, which we absorb as we watch it, but also, and perhaps more importantly, because it prompts us to seek out additional information in greater depth after the fact.