Home Netflix ReviewsNetflix Drama ‘Mank’ Is an Idiosyncratic, Cynical Look Into an Alternate History

‘Mank’ Is an Idiosyncratic, Cynical Look Into an Alternate History

by Nick Kush
Mank

Citizen Kane. Decent flick. Odds are you were forced to study it endlessly in your Intro to Film course in college — it’s second only to Breathless among the films you were most likely to hate due to over-examination. But there’s a reason various critic groups and esteemed filmmakers typically put Citizen Kane at the top of their best movies ever lists — it’s really, really good! Kane is a touchstone of film history, one of the select few films to forever change the course of the art form. It’s a scathing satire of big business and politics, a tragic fall from grace, and a rightfully iconic character study.

However, sometimes I get the sense the conversation around Kane skews far too much into film theory and canonization instead of remarking upon how insanely entertaining it is to this day. Even putting aside the devasting drama and technical mastery, it’s a zippy blast. Charles Foster Kane dancing at a party? Absolute king shit. Susan Alexander’s singing teacher? Hilarious. A cockatoo jump scare as a scene transition? Umm, weird, but I’m here for it!

Which brings us to Mank, a movie made by a guy who also knows how to blend searing ideas with virtuosic entertainment value. David Fincher’s latest is a great companion piece to Kane, studying the life of screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and his many witticisms.

A Look Into the Past(?)

But let’s get something straight: Mank is not historically accurate. It also doesn’t intend to be, which is a key distinction to make when discussing it. Based on the script Fincher’s father Jack wrote through the 90s and early 2000s, the backbone of Mank‘s story is Pauline Kael’s infamous article Raising Kane, which asserted screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was the sole creative vision of Citizen Kane, and that Orson Welles wrote almost none of it.

In the many years since Raising Kane‘s publication in 1971, Kael’s essay has been debunked and criticized the world over. Peter Bogdanovich later published a rebuttal to Raising Kane entitled The Kane Mutiny, wherein he lambasted Kael’s assertions and backed his long-time friend Welles. Ironically, it later came out that Kael stole from UCLA professor Howard Stuber when writing her essay.

So, what exactly did happen? Like in many things, the truth lies somewhere in between. Mankiewicz did in fact write the initial draft, but Welles later sculpted and cleaned the script into what it became. Perhaps Kael had a few interesting ideas on auteur theory, and how ultimately, many pursuits might be more collaborative than we think, but her research was beyond sketchy.

But while Mank may start from a similar perspective to Kael’s, it never attempts to relitigate this debate. It’s not about deciding who deserves screenwriting credit, and certainly is not a feature-length essay on why Orson Welles is a hack who stole from a writer much more clever than him. He plays a part in this version of the story, but it’s pretty minimal. Put your 1000-word defenses of Orson Welles in the recycling bin; Mank isn’t interested.

Mank uses its viewpoint to explore the life of, well, Mank! (I have absolutely no data to back this up, but Mank may break the record for the most times a movie says its title.) Specifically, how key factors in his life and worldview influenced what ultimately ended up in the script of Citizen Kane, from his relationship to William Randolph Heart to the 1934 California gubernatorial race. We find Mank (Gary Oldman) in 1940 while he recovers from a car crash. His days consist of heavy boozing, dictating the script to his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), the occasional call from Welles himself (Tom Burke), and more heavy boozing. Similar to Citizen Kane, Mank then operates nonlinearly, flashing back to Mank’s time in Hollywood throughout the 1930s to show his influences for the script.

Mank

Netflix

Look at All Those Walk and Talks!

For your awareness, it may be best to watch Mank with the subtitles on. The film mimics the fast-talking cadence and recognizable dialect of films from the 30s and 40s. This isn’t a bad thing, just something that may take getting used to. The real Mank was a famously quick wit, and the script imbues his conversations with repartees, blink-and-you-miss-them references, and many instances of actors using the Mid-Atlantic accent, or a similar affectation.

Fincher matches these rapid conversations with swift direction, along with help from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ terrific score. Walk and talk scenes approach breakneck pace. If you look away for a second, you might miss entire conversations.

I imagine this kind of uncompromised staging may be offputting to plenty of casual moviegoers. Mank falling out of Netflix’s Top 10 just a few days after it released may point to as much. But there’s so much to gain from getting on Mank‘s wavelength, including a ton of laughs. Mank may initially feel a bit stodgy, but it’s full of biting criticism as well as a ton of literary dick-swinging! I often find many people use, “[insert movie here] might improve in my estimation with subsequent viewings” as a crutch when a movie feels slightly cold after their initial watch, but for Mank, this might actually be a good time to implement it. Not only will a few watches help you figure out what the hell Mank is muttering after almost drinking himself into a coma, but the layers of the screenplay will shine through.

Stop Calling Mank a “Love Letter”

Another thing that bothers me about the conversation surrounding Mank: people defaulting almost immediately to calling  it a “love letter to cinema.” Um, no, it isn’t. Just because a movie is about Hollywood and shot in black and white does not make it a loving ode to moviemaking or the industry. You’re thinking of The Artist, and that movie is very, very, very bad.

Mank actively despises the Hollywood machine of the time (and that of the present, for that matter), roundly criticizing almost everyone involved, like Louis B. Mayer (played by Arliss Howard, who needs to act more because he’s great in just about everything), a co-founder of MGM, who comes across as a diabolical asshole throughout this film. After the best walk and talk in the film, Mayer heads into one of his buildings where he steps in front of his workers, and with a straight face, tells everyone he needs them to accept half-pay for the time being due to financial hardship. He spins it as a great opportunity for everyone to get involved and help out the team, while promising to pay them back in full later. Obviously, he never does.

Mank drives at the intersection of politics and entertainment. Concurrently to the Hollywood pizzazz, we follow the 1934 California gubernatorial race between Frank Merriam and Upton Sinclair, a race many Hollywood big wigs like Mayer play a major part in manipulating. It’s a relatively deep cut to reference (I can’t say I’ve brushed up on my 1930s California election history knowledge recently), but it goes a long way in detailing the corruption that emerges from the backroom dealings made by the elite of the elite. Mank sits in on many of these conversations because people like William Randolph Hearst think he’s merely an amusing presence to have around.

And while Louis B. Mayer may catch one’s attention with his inflammatory remarks, even comparing Upton Sinclair to Hitler in one instance, it’s the way Mank utilizes Hearst that will stick with me. Hearst is played by Charles Dance, who, other than being a great actor, has one of the most striking voices in the industry. But Mank chooses to keep him silent for the majority of the runtime. His Hearst instead allows all of his underlings to do all the talking for him. He knows he’s the most powerful person in any room; they can do all the talking, and he can remain untouchable by doing all of his work in relative secrecy. Still, he looms over everything. You feel his presence in every single character; he is the puppet master. He controls all.

Also, I let out a massive yelp when I realized who plays Upton Sinclair. No spoilers here, but how can you dislike Mank when it makes that casting choice?!?!

Mank

Netflix

Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried

The two actors receiving much buzz are Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried, and for good reason. While Oldman is one of the most acclaimed actors of his generation, ever since his Oscar win for playing Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour (which was clearly a pseudo-lifetime achievement award due to years of nonrecognition by the Academy), he’s started to venture deeper into direct-to-VOD schlock territory with roles in movies such as Mary, a movie in which basically nothing happens for ninety minutes. You know he still has it in him, it’s just a matter of getting good material. As a character, Mank is precisely that.

Oldman has always been a very theatrical performer. He’s been known to contort his posture, add weight for a performance when necessary, yell incessantly, or whatever else is needed to get the job done. Mank provides ample opportunity for this. Even though he spends much of his time sulking and drinking himself to sleep in a bed, Oldman’s Mank has plenty of subtle quirks that express his general despondency, whether it be him showing off his jowls as he lays back to dictate the script or his stiff, beaten-down movements. He’s also just great at rattling off the script’s sharp dialogue. His line delivery is a personal highlight.

Although, it might be Amanda Seyfried who caught my attention the most. She’s an actress I’ve always admired, but wished she had better roles on her resume. She’s been in many turkeys over the years — my mind immediately goes to movies like The Clapper and A Million Ways to Die in the West — but she’s never the problem. I’m so thankful she found a great role in Marion Davies, who is largely unaware of her partner William Randolph Heart’s misdeeds. She operates within their relationship on a need-to-know basis, but she still has much complexity, much of which comes from Seyfried’s magnetic presence. She even manages to pull off a difficult accent with ease. Any award consideration is absolutely deserved.

David Fincher Does It Again

Admittedly, the attempt to recreate the old-timey feel is where Mank struggles the most. The sound design, filled with the muffled sound you’d hear in an old Hollywood picture, is impeccable, but the digital photography and camera movement is very modern. It creates an odd dissonance throughout, and even though I became used to it after a while, it’s an odd error for a director as meticulous as Fincher. Various plot threads aren’t as fleshed out as they could be either, such as Mank’s relationship with his wife Sara played by Tuppence Middleton (who gives a great performance with the material she has). However, Mank is still a great achievement, turning what could be needless Oscar bait into a more cryptic and caustic affair.

I see Mank of a piece with The Social Network in Fincher’s filmography. Not in quality, but in how they are based on true events yet take considerable liberties with their stories to dig at their corrosive cores. The Social Network is decidedly not how Facebook was founded, and Mank isn’t exactly how Citizen Kane came to be, but not everything has to be entirely accurate to get the spirit of the story right.


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1 comment

Nick Kush December 17, 2020 - 9:24 am

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