Mank: an old Hollywood tale
Updated: Feb 11
Many times we have seen Hollywood tell us stories about their own kin. We have seen the inner workings of the industry in movies like Singin’ in the Rain, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard, and The Artist, to name a few. David Fincher’s new biographical film Mank is no exception.
The film is set in the 1930’s and 40’s, when journalist turned screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, played entertainingly well by Gary Oldman, was considered a washed out alcoholic with nothing new to say. Still, Orson Welles (Tom Burke) chose him to write the screenplay for his next motion picture, the now iconic Citizen Kane. It sounds like such a basic premise and in reality it is. The beauty of this movie lies in its witty banter-style dialogue and in the characters that deliver them.
Over the course of the film we jump back and forth in time. In the present, Mank is forced to stay in a ranch while he finishes the script for his latest film. He´s sickly and spends all of his time in a bed while Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), types the story Mank wants to tell. In the past, we see a totally different Mank. He’s energetic, charismatic, and at the top of his game. In this sequences we get a glimpse of the hardships America was going through like war, depression, and changing politics. Still, Hollywood kept its glamour. We’re introduced to characters like MGM’S Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), always rumored to be the inspiration for the main character in Kane, and comedic actress and Hearst’s mistress, Marlon Davis, played by Amanda Seyfried. Marlon and Mank created a bond that, whether it happened exactly like that or not, made their scenes the most fun to watch.
As the movie progresses we get a deeper sense of who Mank is and why he ended up the way he did. Even though he was an insider, he never bought into the whole Hollywod thing. He looks down on everyone that surrounds him, doesn’t care for the politics of the industry, and embarrasses himself more than once. His own realization that he actually cares about his work, he cares about being recognized, make for a very tragic and personal story. Mank ends up being his own worst enemy and is this vulnerability that Oldman represents with a nostalgic exquisiteness and he proves once again, how versatile he can be.
The final result of this film is not an outstanding story. The screenplay, written by Jack Fincher, David’s father, definitely did a lot of the heavy lifting. Add to it the black and white cinematography and you have a very theatrical display of big egos gracing the screen. Mank is filled with old Hollywood references like F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Wizard of Oz, Hedda and Louella (two gossip columnists of the time), and basically all the characters we see on the movie work as a kind of homage to a past era in show business. If you’re a film buff, you’ll appreciate the zingers and commentary of this golden age. But if you’re not, then this movie might not be quite to your liking.
Mank sometimes feels like it doesn’t have a clear direction of where it’s headed, and, even though it does show redemption for its protagonist by showing him as the secret hero, the movie lacks dynamism if you’re not aware of the context of the story. Fincher doesn’t explain what is going on, he doesn’t explain the sly remarks and their origins. An unknowing audience will simply not get it. But the fact is that Fincher didn’t have to explain it because Mank is clearly not the type of movie that does. This is the type of movie that's not for everybody. Either you'll love it, or you'll hate it.
The now award-nominated movie is a story that uses a very direct structure and shines through its literacy and its stellar performances. In some instances it redeems certain characters like Davis, portrayed by Seyfried with a more conscious sense of self than what the public of her time were accustomed to. In other instances, it seems to be a critique of Hollywood itself. There’s probably not one character in this movie that’s genuinely good. But the dazzling, cynical humor and even romantic depiction of this past era is why Mank will be interesting and meaningful to every film geek out there.
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