Mank (United States, 2020)

December 03, 2020
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mank Poster

Mank is David Fincher’s exploration of the trials and tribulations surrounding the writing of Citizen Kane as seen through the eyes of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman). Filmed in glorious black-and-white with copious postproduction work done to give the movie the verisimilitude of something made during the 1940s (and recently rediscovered), Mank may be Fincher’s most technically challenging production to-date but it suffers from what some might consider to be the director’s Achilles heel: his laser-focus on perfection results in a tepid emotional temperature. It’s hard to feel much of anything for (or about) any of the characters, even the title one. There are also times when Fincher strains a little too hard to italicize parallels between ‘30s politics and political figures (including the infamous 1934 California gubernatorial election) and those of today.

For those familiar with Citizen Kane, Mank is a trove of lore. It tells not only of the two-month period when Mank toiled to meet a deadline imposed by Orson Welles (Tom Burke) but incorporates frequent flashbacks to earlier years when Mank’s friendship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and her lover/benefactor William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) provided him with some of the “dirt” dug up in Citizen Kane. By all accounts, Fincher’s recreations of moments from more than a decade of Mankiewicz’s life are accurate. (He is working from a screenplay credited to his late father, Jack, who wrote it during the 1990s, and to whom the film is dedicated.)

Most of the “present” scenes in Mank transpire at the California ranch where Mank, confined to bed as a result of injuries sustained in a car crash, feverishly assembles the 300+-page script. He has only two assistants – Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and Freulein Frieda (Monika Grossman) – as companions, although the overly officious John Houseman (Sam Troughton) stops in frequently to act as Welles’ go-between. The film’s late moments detail the conflict that erupted between Mankiewicz and Welles regarding Citizen Kane’s authorship and the rift that developed as a result. The flashbacks, meanwhile, provide context for why Mankiewicz would turn on people who has seemingly been so helpful to him during his career.

It has been wrongly claimed that Mank is a “Valentine” to 1930s Hollywood. Although Fincher’s attention to detail results in a beautifully detailed and largely accurate recreation of the era, it is anything but a loving or nostalgia-tinted portrait. Many of the titans, whose names have outlived the people who used them, are presented as venal, petty, and self-absorbed. Of the Hollywood elite spit-roasted by Mank, only Davies emerges unscathed. The movie is especially unsparing when it comes to Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore), Welles, and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley).

Fincher opts for a warts-and-all presentation of Mankiewicz. Although more often sympathetic than not, the character is not without his flaws, chief of which are his alcoholism and a tendency toward being inappropriately smart-alecky. (When asked if he takes anything seriously, he replies: “Only when it’s funny.”) Oldman’s performance (enhanced as a result of the countless takes demanded by the perfectionist director) is an amazing thing – in many ways more impressive than his Oscar-winning turn as Churchill in 2017’s Darkest Hour.

Mank doesn’t feature many likable personalities. There are really only three (all women). The first is Marion Davies, the Hollywood starlet who was a major box office draw from 1917 until 1937. It has been speculated that the character of Susan in Kane was based on Marion – something denied by both Mankiewicz and Welles – and that Hearst’s name for her private parts (“Rosebud”) became public knowledge as a result of the film. Fincher elects to polish Davies’ image rather than tarnish it. The other two appealing characters are Rita Alexander, the wife of a missing RAF airman who works as Mankiewicz’s secretary, and “Poor Sara” (Tuppence Middleton), his wife. Both are treated kindly, although neither could be considered as anything close to “fleshed out.”

One might suppose that a film focused on the writing of what some critics have called “The Greatest Movie Ever Made” might hone in on the creative process but Mank is less interested in how the screenwriter crafted the self-proclaimed “best thing I have ever written” than in the factors that motivated him to do it. As such, the title of Mank is accurate. This is, at its heart and despite all the flourishes honoring ‘40s filmmaking (including a “degraded” print, a noisy sound mix, and fake reel change markers), a character study.

Mank’s most elaborate scene – a banquet hosted by Hearst at which a drunken Mankiewicz gives a rambling speech about his idea for a modernized Don Quixote – is where Fincher becomes a little too obvious in drawing parallels between Hearst and Trump (and, by extension, between the 1934 California governor’s race between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair and the 2020 presidential contest). Without a doubt, similarities exist but it feels gratuitous to point them out in such a blunt fashion. For a screenplay that is laced with beautifully-written passages, this one is almost clumsy.

By making the film for Netflix, Fincher has been absolved of box office concerns. That’s probably a good thing because, outside of film aficionados, who will love every moment of Mank, the movie may be a hard sell. Unlike Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, this look at the movie business-as-it-was lacks the “fun” element that made Tarantino’s Oscar nominee such an enjoyable experience. Fincher’s tone is less playful and his intentions are more serious. Although extraordinarily well-made and excelling in almost every technical category, Mank is at times emotionally uninvolving and appeals more to the intellect than the heart. It’s a welcome addition to the Netflix catalog and will likely stake out a place in the Oscar nominations field but it’s a niche film with a limited audience. (In my mind, that’s a good thing.)

Mank (United States, 2020)

Run Time: 2:11
U.S. Release Date: 2020-11-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.20:1