Thursday, December 3, 2020

Mank - Review

Hollywood making movies about Hollywood. Same tune, different (strange) year. This time, the subject is Herman J. Mankiewicz, the fabled writer of Citizen Kane. In most films about artist of all varieties, the creation of said art is the story, but Mank handles things a little differently. Rather than focus on the writing of one film, it buries itself in the lore of old Hollywood. The glamour, the prestige, the corruption and the sleaze are all on full display, crafting a window into a time long past, even if its ideas aren’t.

The story begins with a washed-up, drunkard Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is nursing a broken leg in a secluded ranch far away from any distractions. While here, he is tasked to write a screenplay, in just twelve weeks, from his bed that will eventually become Citizen Kane. Through flashbacks and visits from the famed director Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the film hops through time just as Citizen Kane did nearly 80 years ago, telling the writer’s story by highlighting the how everything fell into place the way it did.

As the film leaps through time, to various points in the 1930s to be exact, the portrait of how Mank’s life reached this point slowly forms. Early on, at he estate of William Randolph Hearst, Mank befriends Marion Davies, played by Amanda Seyfried. The actress plays Davies with that trademarked sparkle of stardom, but masks her clear intelligence for just exactly how the game is played. Her other half is the aforementioned Hearst, played by the ever-haunting and powerful Charles Dance, who has enough money to bankroll just about any film MGM wants to produce. The two become the basis for characters in Citizen Kane, with clear creative license taken for the former even if it still feels like a betrayal to a degree.

But the performance at the center of it all rings loudest above the other very sharp, witty portrayals. The film is titled Mank after all. Oldman is just about perfect for the droll compulsivity of Mankiewicz. Whether Mank is actually drunk or just hungover, its usually one or the other, his status as an egomaniac is never in question. Oldman is often spewing monologue after monologue of honest thoughts and grandiose sentences. Mank almost finds himself above the whole process, even when he’s a cog in the proclaimed dream factory. 

Director David Fincher, working off the screenplay written by his late father Jack Fincher, is not interested in simply locking us in a room with Mank as he writes, he wants to say something as well. And while the story is set in 1930s and 40s Hollywood, so much still rings true today. The idea of power and who holds it, the politics of movie-making, even dealing in some real politics as well, both thread throughout the story and lead to the eventual creation of Citizen Kane in some way, shape or form.

Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how much you love film, Mank gets very much obscure and detailed with much of its storytelling, even down to the excellent period accurate cinematography from Erik Messerschmidt. It’s not laying out the discussions and ideas that Welles and Mank share when coming up with the film. It’s not detailing how the film became a success or how it’s regarded now. Mank is aiming higher. And that will, of course, limit the appeal of any film, but for those that are intrigued by getting to the inside track of the dream factory of old Hollywood, this film was made for you. 

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