MANK Review

I must admit I feel like something of a fraud even attempting a critique of a film so steeped in not only cinematic history, but history in general. Yes, I've seen Citizen Kane more than once and I've listened to season upon season of Karina Longworth's You Must Remember This podcast and specifically the series of MGM stories that centered on Louis B. Mayer’s rise and fall, yet somehow director David Fincher's Mank still feels so drenched in the world it re-creates that it's difficult to imagine being able to gain all the film has to offer after only a single viewing. As it were, Fincher's latest is likely too inside baseball for anyone outside of those that worship at the altar of cinema, but what might prove to be the most fascinating aspect of Mank is whether or not the core struggles of the main character appeal to a viewer who has no idea who someone like Irving Thalberg - or for that matter, Herman J. Mankiewicz - was. Naturally, those who do in fact worship at said altar are largely going to adore Fincher's latest exercise in clinical cinema that this time not only executes itself with profound professionalism and skill a la all of Fincher's work, but does so as it examines the "golden age" of the industry. The difference will be whether the details included and the approach taken will be enough to enthrall those already on board for a "movie about the movies" or if, while appreciating all of those things, the admiration for what Fincher has accomplished outweighs what is genuine love for it. That is to say, those on the outside looking in who come across Mank as they scroll through Netflix will either continue to scroll past it based on the poster alone or become fully engulfed in the confusion of the time and place Fincher drops his audience into should they be brave enough to press play. As an individual who admittedly knows more than the average Netflix subscriber, but a lot less than a lot of other people about the history of Hollywood Mank feels akin to a highly-stylized and extremely well performed re-enactment. Fincher's film clearly gets everything it possibly could right about the history, the costumes, and the character traits yet there is little that resonates emotionally. Never mind the fact Herman Mankiewicz is the only credited co-screenwriter to Orson Welles on what many consider the greatest movie ever made as Fincher's intent wasn't to make a movie about the making of Citizen Kane, but rather to capture the essence of a process and a person and leave the audience with a little more context and insight than they might have had before. As Gary Oldman's "Mank" says early on in the film though, "You can't capture a man's life in two hours, all you can hope is to leave an impression of one," and while Mank may not necessarily provide the catharsis one desires come the time the credits roll it undoubtedly leaves a strong impression.      
Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and Herman's brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey) walk the MGM lot.
© Netflix

As it states in the opening text of Mank, Welles was only twenty-four when he was given carte blanche by the studios to make any movie he wanted which led him to Herman Mankiewicz, a journalist turned critic turned screenwriter who had an idea. That idea was to take on original media mogul William Randolph Hearst as portrayed here by Charles Dance. As Jack Fincher's (the director's late father) screenplay shows us, Mankiewicz had been to plenty of parties thrown by Hearst experiencing first-hand the incredible excess the man reveled in, but more importantly - it afforded Mank the ability to gain a very specific understanding of this world in which he would come to pull the curtain back on. Citizen Kane, in case one is unaware, is Welles' 1941 masterpiece about the rise and fall of ruthless capitalist Charles Foster Kane and it is no secret that Mank largely based the character on Hearst who had developed the nation's largest newspaper chain and media company. Citizen Kane is a cinematic landmark and few will dispute that, but it is the insight into the process of Mank fusing his frustrations with men like Hearst who used their power to control people and silence skeptics with that of his own, personal power in the written word that Fincher's film seeks to inspect. At the same time, Mank is also simply about the man after which it is named as - given his incredible circumstances of being the writer hired to produce a screenplay for Hollywood's wunderkind in less than ninety days - Herman Mankiewicz was a man largely at opposition with those in power in Hollywood. By all accounts, Mankiewicz was a staunch anti-communist, but an even more ardent anti-fascist who believed in the ideals of, for lack of a better phrase given some circles have made the term a little too taboo, "social justice". To put it plainly, there would be little debate as to where Mankiewicz would fall in our modern world as he was certainly a progressive and thus the reason for his support of Upton Sinclair who ran for Governor of California in 1934. Hollywood studio bosses like Mayer (portrayed in the film by Arliss Howard) and the ever-ambitious Hearst unanimously opposed Sinclair and pressured their employees to vote for incumbent Governor Frank Merriam going so far as to make false propaganda films attacking Sinclair. Fincher's film delves into these more politically charged motivations not necessarily to deliver a history lesson, but to further flesh out the type of man Mank was in the time he was alive. Are these actions against Sinclair what motivated Mank to write Citizen Kane? Who knows, but what the film makes evident about the guy is that it was to Mank's credit that everyone knew he disliked the way in which Hearst and Mayer swung their influence, but was invited to their parties nonetheless. 

Mank was well-known for being a drunk gambler who hated himself, but who everyone else still wanted to be around. He was a character as far as anyone that knew him seems to recall and thus the reason he's seemingly been made into the titular character in a feature film. That's quite an accomplishment on its own, but this also seems to be the reason Fincher was pulled into the story as opposed to being entranced by the idea of making a black and white period piece that romanticized the era. As the talented yet tormented writer (aren't they all) Oldman dutifully personifies the balance of being the smartest and wittiest guy in the room while the majority of the time also being the drunkest. Does the elder Fincher's screenplay sometimes veer a little too much into that writer-ly territory of making its protagonist too much of "caricature" by always having him be the quick-witted comic relief who doles out truths no matter how difficult they might be to hear with no one else standing a chance? Most definitely, but Oldman - with his surly yet charming demeanor - is able to make even the most heightened of conversations at least feel a little more honest. This goes for the rest of the cast as well, but specifically to both Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins who transform what could have otherwise been either a fairly thankless role or a pale imitation into two platonic relationships or, as Mank's wife - "Poor Sara" (Tuppence Middleton) - referred to them, "platonic affairs" that lend better understanding to how Mank was able to operate the way he did without ever coming off as ugly or mean despite his addictions. Collins plays Rita Alexander who is largely relegated to the role of secretary in the history books, but in Fincher's film seems to serve more the role John Houseman (Sam Troughton) is said to have played in the actual screenwriting process. Alexander is brought in to transcribe and keep Mank on task (and off the bottle) with Collins ably going toe to toe with Oldman as she too strikes a fine symmetry between someone as fascinated with the world behind the picture shows as they are well-informed about real-world events. Speaking of the world behind the moving pictures though, it is Seyfried that will garner much of the awards discussion for completely embodying real-life starlet Marion Davies. Seyfried resembles Davies not only in physical appearance, but as a woman no one gave a second thought to yet leaned on her talent and intelligence when it mattered most. Davies was the unhidden mistress of Hearst whom began bankrolling Davies' films in order to promote her as a more serious actress. In the first interaction between Mank and Davies on the set of one of these films Fincher immediately treats us to the lightning in a bottle dynamic Mank and Davies possessed that continues throughout the film and becomes all the more layered given Mank's disposition of being both indoctrinated into this world as well as being the one who would ultimately expose it.      

Amanda Seyfried portrays Marion Davis in David Fincher's Mank.
© Netflix

Of course, Fincher's technical prowess is as highly regarded as his ability to effectively convey a story in the most stylish of fashions and that certainly doesn't change with Mank. If nothing else, the style of this film - while unlike anything Fincher has done before - is among one of the most vital and impressive elements of the final product. Strangely, Mank feels both like it couldn't be further from your typical Fincher film as black and white period pieces aren't exactly what come to mind when you think of the man behind Fight Club, The Social Network, and Gone Girl, but also completely in his wheelhouse given it centers on such a notorious personality working to get to the bottom of something that might allow their life to click into place as they always expected (this brings Zodiac to mind). Fincher's style is meticulous in ensuring it fits the era as he brought on Mindhunter collaborator Erik Messerschmidt to capture the gorgeous monochrome look of the film as well as utilizing the same type of deep focus camera work and bold lighting techniques that use shadow to direct the audience's attention as Welles did in Kane. Hell, even some of the special effects were done in the fashion Welles would have constructed certain sequences as Fincher apparently built out sets with matte paintings rather than using green screen and digital re-creations. Fincher also turned to frequent collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor for the film's score which was composed only from instruments that existed during the time the film takes place and's kind of perfect. Much like the film itself, Ross and Reznor's score begins by being what one expects it to be only to grow into something wholly unexpected and completely its own. It's not only the score though, but the sound of the film as well as sound designer and supervisor Ren Klyce somehow managed to make the film sound as if it’s echoing off the walls of a cavernous movie theater; as if everything has been recorded with old equipment and compressed until it's indiscernible which era it was actually recorded in. This analog sound design combined with the softened resolution of the picture plus the scratches, digs, and cue marks that are integrated into the images all add to the authenticity that what we're seeing very well could have been made some eighty to ninety years ago. It is due to this level of care that, despite the initial absence of a strong emotional resonance,  Mank will live on past our one and done viewing cycle we feel obligated to in this day and age where there's a tsunami of content constantly washing over us. Both David and Jack Fincher's Mank is a film that will have you in awe over the period detail, luscious cinematography, and first rate performances, but it's ultimately not just a portrait of one of the most influential screenwriter's of Hollywood's golden age, but the story and study of a man who was at the top of his game, shared the wealth, but because he hated himself and had an addictive personality that almost dismissed the work he did and the talents he possessed until finally realizing a piece of his work might actually matter and thus deciding to fight for a little bit of the credit for crafting it. It's the story of a man pushing a rock up a hill in gravel, but man is the struggle worth it as that rock leaves one hell of an impression.

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