October 2023

Mank (2020)

DIRECTOR: David Fincher

CAST: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Joseph Cross, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Toby Leonard Moore, Charles Dance


David Fincher’s period piece, telling the (mostly) true story of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz, filmed in black-and-white and made to emulate the look and feel of an actual movie from the 1940s with meticulous verisimilitude, may be the notoriously perfectionist and visually dynamic director’s most technically challenging (and in some ways technically accomplished) project to date, but his laser-focus on capturing the look, style, and feel of a 1940s Hollywood motion picture results in a lukewarm emotional temperature. For Fincher, this has been a passion project and a labor of love; he’s working off a script credited to his own late journalist/essayist father Jack Fincher (although producer Eric Roth, who previously wrote Fincher’s 2008 film The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, also had a hand in the screenplay), who wrote what would eventually become Mank in the 1990s. Fincher had originally intended to film his father’s script in 1997 after finishing The Game, envisioning it as starring Kevin Spacey and Jodie Foster, but plans fell through (his father never lived to see it finally completed, passing away in 2003). Alas, while one can respect what Fincher has accomplished here on a technical level, whatever passion may have gone into the making of Mank is not stirred by watching it. Mank is entertaining and engaging, especially for those with an interest in the subject matter or an appreciation for “Classic Hollywood”, but it’s at times emotionally uninvolving and appeals more to appreciators of witty dialogue and technical filmmaking craftsmanship than to the heart.

Mank travels back-and-forth between two time periods. The “present day” is set in 1940, where brilliant but boozy screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), laid up with a broken leg from a car accident, is holed up at a ranch in the California desert under the fussing eye of John Houseman (Sam Troughton) and attended to only by his British secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and his German housekeeper “Fraulein Frieda” (Monika Gossmann) and working on his magnum opus Citizen Kane, cramming to meet the deadline dictated by his demanding director Orson Welles (Tom Burke). A series of intermittent flashbacks spanning 1930 to 1937 show Mank working for Paramount Pictures and MGM, during which time he makes the acquaintance of the wealthy, powerful, and well-connected newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and befriends Hearst’s much-younger mistress, movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Mank’s friendly acquaintanceship with Hearst and Davies in the 1930s is contrasted by the current 1940 Mank hammering away on Citizen Kane, in which the title character is an unsubtle and unflattering stand-in for Hearst himself. What some around him regard as a personal betrayal is motivated by Mank’s disillusionment with the corruption around him, particularly Hearst extending his muckraking “yellow journalism” into the movie business by funding a smear campaign against Socialist gubernatorial candidate Upton Sinclair with the help of MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard).

Mank engages more on an intellectual than emotional level. The script, as befitting a biopic about a character like Mank, is lively and intelligent with plenty of witty bits. There’s an amusing scene where Mank and fellow writers take turns ad-libbing a movie pitch to an unimpressed David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore). There’s also a bit of subtle fourth wall breaking in an argument between Mank and Houseman: Houseman worries Mank’s script is overly convoluted, describing it as “a hodgepodge of talky episodes, a collection of fragments that leap around in time like Mexican jumping beans”. Mank however refuses to simplify his script, defending his unconventional and non-linear writing style by saying “you cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave the impression of one”. While they’re talking about Mank’s script for Citizen Kane, they could just as easily be debating Mank itself. Additionally, despite having been described as some as a “love letter” to 1930s Hollywood, Mank‘s portrayal is often cynical and unflattering, with the various Hollywood studio moguls depicted onscreen coming across as venal, petty, greedy, and self-absorbed. Particular disdain is reserved for Louis B. Mayer, who is introduced making a rehearsed, phony, weepy speech announcing salary cuts to the assembled employees he prides himself on referring to as “family”, and is later portrayed as Hearst’s lapdog producing political propaganda films on his behalf. Nor is the movie kind to producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), portrayed as shrewd and ruthless, nor even to the volatile and arrogant Orson Welles himself. Of the Hollywood elites onhand, only Marion Davies emerges as a semi-sympathetic, if somewhat vacuous, figure (it has been speculated that Mankiewicz modeled the character of Susan in Citizen Kane after Davies, though both Mankiewicz and Welles denied this).

When it comes to Mank himself, while he’s sympathetic more often than not, and is willing to put his career on the line for his moral convictions, it’s a warts-and-all portrayal. He’s an alcoholic (an addiction which would eventually kill him) who appears to be perpetually either drunk or hungover, with self-destructive tendencies manifesting in a penchant for making a scene, abrasive sarcasm, and a lack of brain-to-mouth filter, all of which give him a bad habit of offending powerful people whom anyone who wanted a successful career in Hollywood offended at their own peril (such as when he goes on a drunken rant disrupting a dinner party filled with Hollywood elite at Hearst’s castle).

New 'Mank' Trailer Shows Gary Oldman Unraveling in David Fincher's 'Citizen  Kane' Expos&#233 - WorldNewsEra

On a technical level, Mank is an impressively accomplished production. Apart from a smattering of profanity and raunchy conversations, it emulates the look, style, and feel of a real motion picture from the 1940s with uncanny verisimilitude, its technical perfection accentuated by copious post-production work and Fincher also demanding countless takes from his actors (Amanda Seyfried has said that one of her scenes took over a week and 200 takes to shoot). Composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who previously scored Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) used only period-accurate musical instruments. While telling the true story of a film production from the 1940s, Fincher also slips in some unsubtle timely political commentary and drawing of parallels between the politics of the 1930s-40s and today, especially during the segment involving the 1934 California gubernatorial election, when MGM, funded by Hearst, produces propaganda films for a smear campaign against writer and California Governor candidate Upton Sinclair, a Socialist on a crusade against poverty and in support of workers’ rights. It’s not hard to see similarities between Donald Trump/William Randolph Hearst and Upton Sinclair/Bernie Sanders, nor in Hearst’s muckraking “yellow journalism” and propaganda films and current “fake news” (the phrase “redistribution of wealth is dropped verbatim). Nor is the movie particularly friendly to Orson Welles; Jack Fincher’s original script worked closely off a claim by film critic Pauline Kael that Welles did not deserve the co-screenwriting credit he shared with Mankiewicz for Citizen Kane, although this claim was disputed by various others (including Welles’ friend and fellow director Peter Bogdanovich, who penned an article refuting Kael’s claims point-by-point). Producer and uncredited script doctor Eric Roth reportedly tweaked the script a little before the final product, with Fincher feeling it was excessively anti-Welles. Incidentally, along with Citizen Kane itself, Mank could also serve as an interesting companion piece to the 1999 HBO movie RKO 281 about the making of Citizen Kane and Hearst’s attempts to stop it. Many of the characters who show up here were also depicted there, including Liev Schreiber as Welles, John Malkovich as Mankiewicz, Melanie Griffith as Marion Davies, and James Cromwell as Hearst.

While Mank could serve as an interesting companion piece to Citizen Kane, and obviously will hold the most interest to Kane aficionados, lack of deep familiarity with Welles’ magnum opus is not strictly necessary to watching Mank, but those unfamiliar with the real-life personalities and behind-the-scenes drama here might find some plot elements hazy. The mostly offscreen “big bad” William Randolph Hearst doesn’t have much screentime, making Mank’s outburst less impactful and feel less-motivated than it could have had Hearst’s hand in events been better explained/developed. Nor does the movie give more than fleeting mention to Hearst’s campaign to use his power in the press and movie business to attempt to first stop Citizen Kane from being made, then blacklist it from playing in theaters or being advertised in newspapers. Likewise, Orson Welles is treated as an afterthought, appearing only fleetingly until the end, making the disintegration of he and Mank’s working relationship in the climax feel like it lacks buildup in similar fashion to Mank’s drunken outburst in Hearst’s mansion (the flashback Mank/Hearst confrontation is intercut with the “present day” Mank/Welles argument, perhaps making an unflattering implication of some similarities between Hearst and Welles). Along the way, there are a few effective character moments, including a few scenes between Mank and his faithful secretary Rita (in fact, this is arguably the best-realized dynamic in the movie), a moment in which his housekeeper Fraulein Frieda reveals an act of generosity on Mank’s part that explains her loyalty to him, and the ambiguous dynamic between Mank and Marion, which feels suspended somewhere between a playful friendship and a latent never-consummated affair, but overall Mank is a rather cold experience that doesn’t offer many likable characters or much to grab onto on an emotional level.

Mank' Trailer: David Fincher Takes on the Making of 'Citizen Kane' for  Netflix in 2020 | David fincher, Citizen kane, Gary oldman

This is not an actors’ movie, and the tone and style keeps the characters, even Mank to an extent, at a distance, but the cast is in sync with the material. In the titular role, Gary Oldman (spending most of his screentime looking boozy and disheveled) sinks his teeth in with gusto, but does it without any of the scenery-chewing for which he was once known. Fincher asked Oldman for a “stripped-down” performance, and while Mank is a juicy, flamboyant character, Oldman plays him straight and his performance is subdued and restrained. In the supporting cast, Amanda Seyfried feels right at home doing her best impression of an outwardly vapid 1930s movie starlet, and Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton are appealing as the only other two female roles of any significance, Mank’s British secretary Rita Alexander (from whom Citizen Kane‘s Susan Alexander Kane gets her name) and Mank’s long-suffering but loyal wife Sara. Arliss Howard gives a lively, flamboyant, and unflattering portrayal of Hollywood mogul Louis B. Mayer, and Charles Dance’s chilly, aristocratic demeanor suits him as William Randolph Hearst. Tom Burke looks and sounds the part as Orson Welles, though he appears only fleetingly until an explosive final scene. Other supporting roles include Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s fellow writer brother Joseph, Sam Troughton as a fussy, officious John Houseman, Joseph Cross as Mank’s friend and Marion’s nephew Charles Lederer, Ferdinand Kingsley (son of Ben Kingsley) as Irving Thalberg, Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick, and Bill Nye (yes, “The Science Guy”) in a brief appearance as Upton Sinclair.

While it may find itself under consideration in some technical categories, and possibly awards attention for Oldman (although in my opinion his performance as Mankiewicz is not as forceful as his Oscar-winning portrayal of Winston Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour), Mank is a film it’s easier to admire on a detached, clinical level for its technical craftsmanship than for its lukewarm emotional effect. It’s technically well-made and admirable on some levels, but its sometimes emotionally flat and unengaging tone makes the characters, even Mank himself to an extent, hard to care about. It’s more impressive as a cinematic experiment than as a conventional drama.

* * 1/2