Sun, 13 Dec 2020
Running time 2hr 11min
Review by Cameron Blackshaw
A MISUNDERSTOOD and overlooked man in his time who has since passed into the mythological canon of classical Hollywood’s eccentric figureheads, Herman J Mankiewicz – ‘Mank’ – was perhaps the most maverick component of the golden age’s well-oiled movie-making machine. A New York journalist and drama critic who eventually found success in Hollywood fixing the screenplays of others, Mank never let his alcoholism or gambling addiction get in the way of his literary talent, with his
contributions leading to the successes of some of the era’s greatest films, notably The Wizard of Oz and Pride of the Yankees.
However, Mank will forever be remembered as the co-writer of Citizen Kane, a cinematic masterpiece that many still argue to this day is the greatest film ever made. It is considered Orson Welles’ magnum opus, the icon who directed, starred in and produced the film, as well as the man who shared writing credit with Mank. The film’s legacy is often over clouded by one of film criticism’s most hotly contested subjects; who really wrote Kane’s fabled script? Was it the washed-up oddball writer, or the theatrical larger-than-life boy genius?
Mank’s premise made it seem that David Fincher’s latest film would offer his own views on the debate, assumedly in Mankiewicz’s favour. However, he chooses a far more human and personal approach, focusing on Mank the man, his insatiable appetite for wit which often disguised his well-meaning intentions. Mank is undoubtedly Fincher’s most personal film. It feels like a cinematic appreciation of the underappreciated Herman J Mankiewicz, the filmmaking style of Hollywood’s classical age, and more than a nod to his late father Jack Fincher, who wrote Mank’s screenplay in the 1990s.
This is certainly a great film. But it’s quite unlike Fincher’s usual dark and heart-thumping offerings. It contains constant references to old Hollywood through both its style and content, references I fear will push away the casual viewer. Just as Tarantino praised the sun-drenched kitschiness of 60s California in last year’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Fincher’s own detailed love letter is meticulous in its stylistic reconstruction (down to the cigarette burns that routinely pop up in the top right-hand corner) while simultaneously showing off the director’s signature cynicism in its portrayal of the backdoor greed-powered machinations that drove the classical studio system.
Much of this cynicism is found within the character of Mankiewicz, played superbly by Gary Oldman. He brings the necessary intoxicating eccentricity to the part, with his drunken nonchalant attitude only allowing his selfless kindness to shine through on occasion. It’s another masterclass we can add to Oldman’s illustrious list of performances and in my mind he’s already the frontrunner for this year’s leading actor awards.
The story mainly focuses on Mank’s time in 1940 holed up in an isolated California ranch, attempting to get sober while he writes the first draft that would go on to become ‘American’, the basis for Citizen Kane. As Mank makes progress with his writing, the film has intermittent flashbacks to his time working in Hollywood in the 30s, as the industry felt the weight of the great depression, California was in political turmoil, and how he himself cultivated relationships with Hollywood’s head honchos.
Mank’s relationship with business magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his movie star mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is the plot’s lynchpin. Hearst is rightfully widely regarded as the basis for Charles Foster Kane, and it is Mank’s view of him that shaped Kane’s script. This is Mank’s only problem. Herman’s sweet relationship with Marion is deeply explored and is a delight to watch, but Charles Dance is criminally underused as Hearst. His presence in the film is fleeting, but his although his influence is meant to be strongly felt, Mank’s problems with Hearst never seem to truly bubble to the surface.
Beside this, Mank is a classical Hollywood cinephile’s dream. The story is illuminating and intriguing with the cast being perfectly able to bring to life the cigarette-smoking world of Hollywood behind the silver screen. From its opening credits to its fuzzy monosound and noir lighting, Mank’s attempt to pastiche and recreate the classical style is wholly successful.
The dichotomy of writer to director that is so key to the mythos of Citizen Kane and the story of Mank is intriguingly brought to mind when considering Fincher’s latest film. His direction of his actors and his understanding of old Hollywood’s style is fantastic, but it is the script that ties it altogether. Jack Fincher’s razor-sharp dialogue is hilariously memorable (Mank’s “plagued by spirits” pun is a true highlight) and his grip of understanding his strange protagonist unique.
Fincher’s triumph (that he will undoubtedly receive from critics) is comparable to Welles with Kane. His father’s underappreciated talent for screenwriting will only now be shown to the world. Although Mank acknowledges the work of the director, it paints the writer as the true hero of Hollywood.