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Josh Reviews Mank

David Fincher’s latest film, Mank, tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz, the man who wrote the screenplay for Citizen Kane along with Orson Welles.  Mank depicts the weeks in 1940 during which the alcoholic Mank worked on the Kane screenplay, while being almost completely bed-ridden due to his recovery from a broken leg.  The film also flashes back throughout the thirties to show the arc of Mank’s relationships with the wealthy power-broker William Randolph Hearst and Hearst’s young movie-star wife, Marion Davies, both of whom were mercilessly lampooned in Kane.  

Mank is, in many ways, an incredible film.  It’s certainly been made with extraordinary craft and attention to detail.  There’s a lot to love and respect here.  And yet, I must confess that the film left me somewhat unsatisfied.  After a first viewing, I don’t feel that Mank holds up with the best of Mr. Fincher’s many great films (from Seven to Zodiac to The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to The Social Network and more).

Let’s start with what’s good.  The film looks amazing.  Mr. Fincher has an incredible eye, and the layers of period detail in Mank are extraordinary.  There is so much for the eye to drink in, in every single frame.  Mr. Fincher & Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt shot Mank in beautiful, lush black and white, just like Kane.  Their mastery of the mise-en-scène, and of light and shadow, equals Welles’.  This is a beautiful film.

I loved the way the film has been structured to resemble Citizen Kane.  Both the fractured narrative and the visual style are reminiscent of Kane.  The film’s credits have a 1940’s vibe to them.  The scene-setting chirons are written as if they’re establishing locations from a film script.  I love these levels of detail.

The script, written by Mr. Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, is sharp.  I like the flashback structure, and there is some incredibly snappy dialogue throughout.

Gary Oldman plays Mank, and as always, Mr. Oldman is absolutely magnificent.  He commands the screen; his charisma and force of personality break right through.  Mr. Oldman’s performance is my favorite thing about this film.

In fact, the entire cast is strong.  Amanda Seyfried is very impressive as Marion Davies.  I love how thoroughly Ms. Seyfried, and the film’s script, humanizes Ms. Davies.  I could imagine a version of this film in which Ms. Davies had been played as an oversized joke (sort of how she was depicted in Kane), but Ms. Seyfried plays Marion as a relatively likable, normal, centered young woman (despite the world of opulence she strides through).  I liked her Brooklyn twang.  I really enjoyed following the arc of Marion’s friendship with Mank over the course of the film.  Charles Dance (Game of Thrones, Alien 3) is terrific as William Randolph Hearst.  Here too, I loved that Mr. Dance didn’t overdo it — he keeps Hearst centered and grounded.  Until his final speech, Mr. Hearst is mostly silent in the film; Mr. Dance conveys so much through his face, and through his eyes.  One of the most surprising aspects of this film was how sympathetic the portrayals of Marion Davies and Hearst were.  That was a very interesting choice.

Lily Collins plays Rita Alexander, the young woman hired to take dictation for the bed-ridden Mank.  Ms. Collins is great, though I wish we got to know Rita better in the film.  Tom Pelphrey (who’s come a long way since Iron Fist) is terrific is Mank’s often-exasperated brother Joseph (who would go on to have a lengthy career as a screenwriter and director).  Arliss Howard (Amistad, Moneyball) is very memorable as studio chief Louis B. Mayer.  Just as I was surprised by how sympathetic the film treated Marion Davies and William Randolph Hearst, I was also surprised by how the film eviscerates Mr. Mayer.  It’s one thing to show Mayer feigning tears as he gets all of his studio employees to take a huge pay-cut, and lies to them about paying back their missed wages when the studio’s financial situation improves.  (That’s apparently true!)  It’s another thing to show Mayer faking tears at his son’s funeral.  That had me sitting up in surprise (and wondering if that had any basis at all in fact).  Tuppence Middleton shows great steel and good humor in the small but important role of Mank’s long-suffering wife, Sara.  Bill Nye (yes, Bill Nye!) is a hoot as Upton Sinclair.  And Tom Burke is phenomenal as Orson Welles — his voice sounds just like Welles!  I was impressed.

The issue of what if anything in Mank is actually true is one of my biggest problems with the film.  The authorship of Citizen Kane has been much debated over the decades.  Mank takes the view argued by Pauline Kael in her famous (infamous?) 1971 article for The New Yorker, “Raising Kane,” which suggests that wunderkind director/writer/star Orson Welles didn’t actually have much to do with the writing of the script for Citizen Kane.  (Click here to read Ms. Kael’s article.)  However, that article has been widely criticized and, in the years since its publication, many would argue its assertions have been debunked.  This recent article from deadline.com contains an excellent, in-depth summary of the debate over who wrote Citizen Kane and the key points of evidence on both sides.  I freely admit that I am not an expert on this topic, but based on my reading on the subject, I tend to agree with that Deadline article’s conclusions that: “Mankiewicz did the heavy lifting of the initial drafts, characterization and dialogue, while Welles, once the project proceeded, reshaped, rewrote, transposed, added, eliminated and in all ways tailored the script to his ultimate liking.”  In other words, the film’s shared screenwriting credit between Mr. Welles and Mr. Mankiewicz is a decently fair assessment.

And so I had a weird feeling watching much of Mank.  I was enjoying many aspects of the film, while also often feeling like I was watching an alternate history that doesn’t match the reality of what actually happened.  I struggle with movies when they play fast and loose with a true story.  As I have discussed in other reviews (such as my analysis of Hidden Figures), while I understand that movies are not historical documents, and that some massaging/condensing of events is necessary to create a two-hour movie, I get uncomfortable when I feel a film has strayed too far from reality.

I must also confess that, while I adored Gary Oldman’s lead performance, I have become weary of stories celebrating a difficult (usually white) male artistic “genius”.  In this film, Mank is depicted as an unrepentant alcoholic.  The film mines a lot of humor from that, and Mr. Oldman’s comedic skills make those scenes sing.  But taken as a whole, I am bothered by the idea that this impossible to deal with drunkard should be held up as a creative genius to be celebrated.  Much of Mank’s behavior in the film ranges from troubling to abhorrent.  It’s hard for me to find this too terribly amusing or sympathetic, and even if Mank DID write the masterpiece Citizen Kane all on his own, I don’t think that end result would excuse much of what we see of Mank in the film.  I don’t think a person has to be difficult or drunk in order to achieve artistic greatness, and I tire of stories that suggest otherwise.  (Don’t think that’s what Mank is doing?  I simply draw your attention to the fact that in the film, once Rita finally relaxes and allows Mank to imbibe all the booze he desires, we cut almost immediately to Mank’s having completed the entire Kane screenplay in just a few weeks.)

Shifting back to the positive, I was surprised by how much I loved the lengthy middle stretch of the film, in which the narrative moves away from a look at behind-the-scenes Hollywood shenanigans and focuses on how the rich and powerful in California (and, specifically, Hollywood) banded together to defeat liberal Upton Sinclair’s gubernatorial campaign in 1934.  I came into Mank as a huge Citizen Kane fan who was excited to dig into the details of the making of that film.  But my favorite parts of the film had nothing at all to do with the making of Kane!  I’ve read The Jungle, but I didn’t know much about Mr. Sinclair’s failed campaign for Governor of California in 1934.  Watching the sequences in which Hollywood moguls backed the creation of fabricated anti-Sinclair newsreels was very upsetting.  Those scenes gave the film a powerful resonance for our politically tumultuous present day.  Watching that middle-stretch of the film I was engaged far more than I had been before.

Of course, those real-life political events ARE connected to Citizen Kane, which is a film that assails the ways in which the rich and powerful use their money and influence to their own benefit and no one else’s.  I enjoy those thematic connections within Mank on an intellectual level.  Nevertheless, watching Mank, it felt to me like there was this other more interesting movie in the midst of the much longer (too long, in my opinion) other movie that didn’t connect with me as much.

I deeply respect the skill on display in Mank.  This is a film I wanted to love more than I do.  It’s definitely a film I hope to revisit some time in the not-too-distant future.  There’s a lot here, and I wonder if the film will speak to me more deeply on a repeat viewing.

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