“Mank” Movie Review


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     Hopefully, given its lofty status as being widely considered one of the greatest films of all time, you will have viewed Orson Welles’ 1941 film “Citizen Kane” before settling in with David Fincher’s “Mank”, a brilliant ode to Hollywood’s Golden Age which provides a unique character study on the man primarily responsible for the Academy Award winning screenplay that would become Welles’ masterpiece.  Stepping into the shoes of the long time Hollywood screenwriter, Herman Mankiewicz, is Gary Oldman, who again turns in one of the best performances of the year and continues to solidify his ability to morph into a wide range of characters in a manner that remains nuanced, rather than overpowering.  

     And though playing Mank doesn’t require the kind of transformation we saw in 2017’s Winston Churchill drama “Darkest Hour”, the role does allow for the invention of a personality of which only long time film historians can really confirm.  That in itself presents challenges since the film is meant to explore the very character traits that led to him creating what most would consider the best work of his career.

     Shot in glorious black and white, “Mank” transports the audience to mid 1930s depression era Hollywood, where, quite frankly, it doesn’t appear those within the studio system are suffering all that much.  We accompany Mank into a series of office meetings where he and the studio higher ups discuss ideas for ensuring people continue to come to the movies, even as many people are now out of work.  We see the inner workings of a movie studio through Mank’s various relationships, as he is a clearly established heavyweight whose ability to write and produce has ensured his seat at the table amongst the key decision makers.

     But fast forward to 1940 and we see a different person.  If you look into Herman Mankiewicz, something that will regularly come up is the fact he despised Hollywood.  And he apparently had no problem saying exactly what he felt and didn’t care if the person on the receiving end was a big shot director or studio big wig.  Of course, in any work environment, behavior that results in strained relationships almost always means you’ll soon be on your way out of town.  And that’s exactly where we see Mank at the point where a 24 year old outsider named Orson Welles (Tom Burke) hires him to write the screenplay for his next film which is being produced without the usual studio oversight and involvement.

     At this point, Mank was an alcoholic who now had few friends and was likely wondering if he would ever work again.  Making matters worse, he was recently involved in a car accident that left him with a severely broken leg, hampering his ability to really do anything.  But Welles saw this as an opportunity, sequestering Mank at an isolated ranch in Victorville, California and giving him the necessary staff and accommodations to complete a screenplay during his recovery in about two months.  And as we watch all of this transpire with the occasional set back, normally related to the fact no alcohol is allowed, Fincher brings us back to the mid 1930s at key points in Mank’s career, as we meet a number of influential people within his realm including famed film producer Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), businessman and publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), MGM co-founder Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard), and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).  All of which play a crucial role in Mank’s eventual distaste for his workplace.

     Politics play a central role in the story with much of it eerily comparable to many of the issues we are facing today.  As Mank continues to navigate through his Hollywood existence, he is regularly confronted by the studio to monetarily support certain political candidates, a situation that comes to a full burn during the 1934 Californian gubernatorial election that pitted conservative Republican Frank Merriam, the studio’s favored candidate, against Upton Sinclair, a Democrat and noted socialist author whose ideals were thought to echo communism.  It was this race where the film industry created a series of misleading ads that had a crucial impact on the election, something that Mank spoke out about, but was apparently shut down by the studio’s power pulpit.  Sounds like a pretty easy way to get black balled to me.

     Of course, if you’re up on your “Citizen Kane” lore, then you know Mank’s contract with Welles originally had him uncredited for his work.  Mank completed the script in the time allotted, and fought to have his name alongside Welles, which did happen in time for him to receive an Academy Award for his work, but the story that led up to him writing his own masterpiece is nothing short of fascinating.  Fincher essentially shows us how he got there by recreating the Hollywood landscape at a time where filmmakers were still enamored by the fact they could actually have actors talk.  We’re all familiar with Fincher’s previous work with classics such as “Seven”, “The Social Network”, and “Zodiac” highlighting his filmography, but “Mank” feels like a departure from his norm and in a good way.  

     “Mank” plays in much the same way Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” did in that we as an audience are brought behind the scenes during a bygone era, only to find the politics of your average workplace were just as alive and well then as they are today.  How far you go will depend on what side you choose.  After watching the film, is there any doubt where the primary influence for “Citizen Kane” media tycoon Charles Foster Kane came from?  Herman Mankiewicz was a member of the in crowd and surrounded by the ultra rich at a time when making more money was their primary motive, rather than helping the masses who were not sure when their next meal might be.  Wait a minute. Are we talking about the 1930s or today?  GRADE: A