A film review by Craig J. Koban December 11, 2020

MANK jjj

2018, R, 131 mins

Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz  /  Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies  /  Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst  /  Lily Collins as Rita Alexander  /  Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer  /  Tom Pelphrey as Joseph Mankiewicz  /  Sam Troughton as John Houseman  /  Tom Burke as Orson Welles

Directed by David Fincher  /  Written by Jack Fincher


I've been thinking an awful lot about David Fincher's new fact based Netflix period drama MANK, which takes its name from the famous American screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, who's perhaps best known in cinema circles for co-winning an Oscar for the screenplay to what's largely considered the greatest film of all time in CITIZEN KANE.  Mankiewicz's collaboration with Orson Welles has been the stuff of contentious legend, with a lion's share of the controversy hovering over whether or not "Mank" was the primary writer of Welles' iconic film; he once said "The fact is that there isn't one single line in the picture that wasn't in writing - writing from and by me - before ever a camera turned."   

This is absolutely fertile behind the scenes historical ground to be covered in a film, and MANK makes a very reasonable claim that the titular writer was indeed a sizeable driving force in the shaping and penning of CITIZEN KANE and that Welles - through his very presence as a newly arrived "boy wonder" in Hollywood and some questionable contract negotiations - tried to stymie Mankiewicz's contributions and take full credit himself.  Fincher seems like a solid fit for such material, and MANK is positively dripping with Old Hollywood glamour and atmosphere, all lovingly and meticulously photographed in lush black and white to evoke the films of yesteryear.  On top of that, we also have another truly brilliant turn by Academy Award winner Gary Oldman as the beleaguered writer himself.  Days after seeing MANK I find myself still taken in with the visual and production artifice of the piece, but where the film fails for me, though, is that it's not an altogether absorbing chronicle of the pre-production back stage politics of the making of CITIZEN KANE, nor does it offer up much in terms of the creative aspects of Mankiewicz's process in writing its script.  MANK reminded me of the recent films of Christopher Nolan: Unparalleled technical masterpieces and impeccably made on a level of pure craft, but films that failed to engage me emotionally or dramatically. 

I guess there's a claim to be made that MANK is not about CITIZEN KANE's production, but is rather about Mankiewicz himself, his career struggles, his chronic addictions, and the ordeals that this former critic turned screenwriter went through to receive credit for CITIZEN KANE.  Fincher's film (which, incidentally, was written by his late father David Fincher in the 1990s) is not an all inclusive biopic of Mankiewicz, but rather focuses on a few key decades of the man's working life in Hollywood, more specifically the roughly sixty day period that he pressured through to make Welles' (Tom Burke) imposed deadline to finish the screenplay.  Added on to that are flashbacks to the previous decade that shows Mankiewicz's comings and goings and his relationships with various industry power players.  The scenes set in the "present" show Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman, in peak method form) slaving away at the KANE script at a California ranch while recovering from horrific injuries suffered in a nearly tragic car accident.  He has two assistants that help him with his soon-to-be massive 300 page script: Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and Freulein Alexander (Monika Grossman), the former of which takes dictation from the bed ridden Mank.  



Mank is frequently interrupted by the recurring presence of Mercury Theater liaison John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who pops in to ensure that Mank is getting the job done that Welles has hired him for.  From here the film segues back and forth from present to past and shows Mank cozying up to various industry folk, some looming quite large in terms of power and influence, like studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), Irvin Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore).  The biggest of Mank's big wig friends is newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and we witness his attempts to cast his influence over the larger world of politics outside of the movies during the 30s.  Mank was also very cozy with Hearst's lover, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), and we get snippets here and there about how his ties to her and Hearst had a clear cut influence in Mank shaping KANE's script in terms of its key characters.  Meanwhile and in the present, the looming presence of Welles - who barely appears in the film - begins to weigh heavily down on Mank while he tries to finish his scripting assignment, which builds to a unavoidable showdown between the two men. 

Right from the get-go it's abundantly clear that MANK is an absolute visual dynamo in multiple respects.  Fincher has taken great conceptual pains to ensure that his film not only evokes the period in question, but also has the veneer that it could have been made back then as well.  The dazzling black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt (which has obviously been tinkered with via post-production VFX work) is the film's main selling grace (the meticulous control freak in Fincher even went as far as to include subtle touches, like digitally inserting small circles in the corner of the frame to suggest old timey film reel changes).  Trish Summerville's award worthy period costumes help sell the illusion to great effect, and frequent Fincher collaborators in Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross concoct a wondrous music score that feels like it was plucked from a production from the 40s.  Fincher, if anything, has routinely made a name for himself for being one of cinema's most confident craftsmen, and MANK further props up that claim: As a recreation of Tinseltown of old, this is as superlative as anything I've seen outside of Tarantino's ONCE UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD. 

Some have labeled MANK as a love letter to Old Hollywood.  That's just partially true.  Fincher is clearly enamored with exploring the sights and sounds of the times in question and painstakingly recreating them in every minute detail, but MANK also wisely hones in on the obvious sleaze factor that permeated the industry back then, which definitely doesn't make the film a wholly squeaky clean portrayal.  MANK displays many of the more omnipresent power brokers for what they were: manipulative, egomaniacal, corrupt, and willing to bury anyone for profit.  Very few punches are pulled when it comes to this film's ridicule of the aforementioned moguls, with Mayer in particular being revealed as a deeply conveying figure of immense supremacy.  Even Welles himself here (in, again, the few scenes he occupies) comes off as a young and entitled narcissist that perhaps props himself up on too high of a pedestal.  The point here is that Fincher shows Old Hollywood as a superficial place of glamour and fame, but slowly pulls the curtain on that to reveal the darker heart of darkness the lurks beneath. 

That, and MANK is respectfully unsparing to, well, Mank himself, who's shown fairly as a brilliant author with a delicious sense of deadpan humor, but one that clearly let his alcoholism get the better of him at the most inopportune times.  Mankiewicz is certainly framed with modest levels of sympathy (imagine having to work under the overwhelming control freak presence of Welles cast over you and ordering you to pen a masterpiece in just sixty days...and then trying to remove your credit from such an project?), but MANK is arguably just as critical of the legendary screenwriter as well.  Fincher takes a warts and all approach, who shows him as a man that perhaps was the smartest man in any given room, but whose drunken behavior and penchant for being a smooth talking wise ass easily makes him insufferable during many key scenes in the film.  Oldman's tour de force and immersive performance is mesmerizing to behold, and the veteran actor manages to effectively play up to all of the contradictions of Mankiewicz to fully evoke a shrewd intellectual that just so happened to do a lot of dumb things to alienate people.  Oldman could easily net his second Oscar for his commanding turn here. 

But, alas, this brings me to an unavoidable question that I have to pose: Why didn't I care more about what was happening in this film?  Why wasn't I as invested in the history here as much as I wanted to be?  MANK is so extraordinary on a performance and technical level, but I felt so little while watching it.  I wouldn't go as far as describing MANK as soulless, but something just pushed me away at a distance from fully embracing Fincher's efforts here.  Maybe it has something do with MANK not telling me much about the creation of CITIZEN KANE that I didn't already know.  Scenes between Mank and Welles are so woefully few and far between (granted, I can understand why Fincher wanted Welles more on the sidelines in order to make the story more about Mank himself).  Beyond that, what about Mankiewicz's whole writing process itself?  A film about the scripting of the greatest film ever made should say something about how Mank wrote, but Fincher seems oddly and disappointingly reticent in doing so.   

Maybe I never felt invested because, deep down, there's just so many unappealing personas in the film that I had a hard time latching onto, Mank himself included.  That doesn't mean that you can't make great films about sad sacks, but outside of Mank we're given a relative cavalcade of disagreeable chaps cheating their way to success, and the actors are good here, but the moguls they occupy don't entirely feel well rounded as characters (they float in here and there in the story, which leads to another issue being that the flashback structure really takes some time to acclimate to).  Sometimes the cutting back and forth is seamless, sometimes it's not, whereas early on in the film it becomes a tad disorienting trying to make out past from present.  Women feature heavily in Mank's life during the decades presented, and they're possibly the only figures in the narrative that are presented in a decent light.  Still, for as favorably as Fincher portrays Golden Age Hollywood starlet Marion Davis, Seyfried seems ill at ease in the role and is rarely convincing when playing off of Oldman.  That, and the women in general here mere marginalized ciphers servicing the needs of the male characters instead of being fully developed characters on their own. 

There are other issues at play, like Fincher attempting to show Hearst, for example, trying to exert his power to affect the 1934 California gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair at one point (the intersection of the political and movie worlds on display here isn't as fleshed out as Fincher thinks there are, and they somewhat detract from the real story of Mankiewicz writing of CITIZEN KANE itself).  I feel like in the latter stages of this review that I'm coming down really hard on MANK.  In the end, Fincher's picture is replete with so much intoxicating imagery and matchless performance gymnastics by Oldman that it becomes quite hard to totally deride it.  MANK rightfully shows the paradoxical allure and backstage savagery of a monumental time of artistic intrepidness in Hollywood, with Mankiewicz leading the charge, but unavoidably and depressingly not getting the credit in his time that he deserved (he never worked with Welles again and later further succumbed to alcoholism and died too young).  Still, Fincher's eleventh feature film is an oddly problematic package: provocatively engineered and executed with the filmmaker's exquisite eye for detail, but one that kind of falters at probing what exactly made Mankiewicz's contributions to CITIZEN KANE - and cinema as a whole - so very instrumental.

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