Mank – Review

I thought Mank would be a David Fincher movie draped in black & white with some digital grain sprinkled in post but what we got was a real 30’s movie feel. There are some modern cinematography techniques in play that can be excused here because they never break the spell of the time period. Gary Oldman, who looks nothing like Herman Mankiewicz, carries the air of natural charm and wit that embody everything we’ve heard of Mank. He walks around drunk and always has the funniest most insightful things to say. There’s Seyfried, who does kinda look like Davies, delivering a singularly career best performance that may have the power to redeem Marion’s image in film history.

Still from ‘Mank’
The movie really spins its gears when Mank first passes out at San Simeon before being awoken by Marion’s yelling whilst shooting a home movie with “pops”. Even while hung-over Mank still manages to stand out enough so as to find himself seated to the left of the lord of the manor’s side. The only issue with that perfectly cinematic sequence was the way the score bubbles the audience up to expect more misadventures between Mank, Davies and Hearst, after Marion says, “Pops likes you,” but it never really comes. All we get is the three of them, Mayor & Irving Thalberg plus a bunch of other people dining in high ceiling rooms. The film may have benefited from more episodes of such.

It strikes me as strange that Citizen Kane is a full 12 minutes shorter than Mank but feels like it covers so much more. I’m of the opinion that by now, especially after a showing like this, David Fincher should be considered a master of pacing and rhythm. He’d rather play out one section of the drama to its end than compromise on too many. That’s what feels different between the two films. The gubernatorial election plot thread was a smart inclusion for the development of Herman as a character. Whether it happened or not, he needed to be seen fighting with himself and winning for once before he’s put down again by the powers that be and subsequently banished from the kingdom.

I’m going to give Orson Welles this next paragraph, which is more regard than he gets in the picture. The wonder kid boy genius from New York is presented as a looming figure in Mank. Mostly heard, the same way he would be widely accessible in the 1930s, Mr. Welles calls in from time to time but is in large part the whole reason this movie’s events even happened. Tom Burke, of The Souvenir fame, may have the best voice of all the Welles’ that have been committed to the silver screen though his performance is too scarce and ill covered to be judged with the likes of others who had whole movies serving as vehicles. But for the moments he is on screen he relishes playing that one of a kind showman so much that we enjoy it too and drop whatever misgivings we may have harbored. When the Academy Award for Best Screenplay is announced, at the mention of Mank, which is read first, so many cheers erupt that it drowns out Welles’ name. Mank had been wrong before, they weren’t completely exacerbated by him just yet.

Still from ‘Mank’
Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton as Rita Alexander and Poor Sara respectively were in top form in their own right. Very important supporting roles for Oldman that bounced well off each other and peel Oldman’s character gradually from a witty writer to a man that saved nearly 100 people in a German village from Hitler. Tom Pelphrey as the older Mank, Joseph, is bland enough to ignore when he first comes out to Hollywoodland, especially when in the same room as his brother. In his 1940 scene when he comes to visit Herman he looks somewhat like the man who would 11 years later win Academy Awards for All About Eve. There’s a wised up inflection in his voice and a cavalier air of cynicism. Perhaps that’s what the dirty town does to you after a sojourn. And it is dirty. As glimpsed in the 1934 gubernatorial election of California, the races are rigged. The screenplay chooses to echo this not with the fall or lack of fulfillment of a great actor or director, but of someone who had real power and could actually change the world. Mank delivers a drunken eloquent monologue one night at dinner over at San Simeon taunting his host and Mayor. The words and the general idea of the speech could’ve been worked out better but we can’t say it didn’t make it’s point. Upton Sinclair thought Hearst would be the messiah to bring forth a socialist revolution but the newspaper baron got too caught up making elaborate home movies with his Hollywoodland mistress. So Sinclair loses hope and tries to be that messiah himself and is then failed and sabotaged by the man he once hoped would be great.
Still from ‘Mank’
It’s a tragedy upon a tragedy. But I fail to understand people who call Mank’s entire story tragic. If anything it’s a straight comedy that dreads dealing with the drama of its subject though finds a way to do so tastefully. It fails to be tragic because it does not discuss why Herman has been drinking so much booze in his life. He just does and it winds up being an endearing character trait and… joke. Here was a self-destructive wit that could’ve been a great man, in the words of the already great Irving Thalberg, but just didn’t have the temperament or desire to. Now, the triumph lights it’s way here. Mank betrays his friends for a story, I mean a screenplay. That script gets him banished from San Simeon but lands him his only writing trophy. Marion forgives him, I presume (she didn’t even care, apparently), as she had promised, and the only person with a stake to his heart was Hearst. And to an extent Orson Welles. This is as much of a happily ever after that could have possibly existed for a man like Mank, even though “he was only 55” when he died.

Still from ‘Mank’
Collectively terming the men this film centers around (certainly not the women who were all lovely people), I would call them monsters and nobody plays a bigger more infamous monster than Arliss Howard who soaks up the shenanigans of the great Louis B. Mayor, chairman of MGM studios. The first time we see him, he’s slapping a man who’s insulted his own mother and two seconds later cordially greets a new employee. That’s the kind of giant that ruled the movie industry throughout the earlier twentieth century plus there were little monsters under him in the form of producers, directors and writers. These monsters tore each other up like sharks and this is but a microcosm of one of many such incidents.

Mank writes the Citizen Kane script, known to him as “American,” attacking the publishing mogul William Randolph Hearst but basing the character of Charles Foster Kane on Hearst, Welles and himself. According to the Netflix and David Fincher film, his condemnation of Hearst is really some backward self-hatred projected on a man who trickled and contributed to his spiritual demise. When Welles said in interviews that Kane was a composite of many different people, he wasn’t wrong, and there were only those three. Sure, little bits of Samuel Insull’s story got used but none of his character. The force of Kane as a man is really a three headed beast of all the worst qualities of Welles, Mank and Hearst. The hollowest of hollow men. Because just like Hearst, Mank just wants to be loved but succeeds a great deal more than the former.

This picture doesn’t necessarily need to exist. It doesn’t outdo Citizen Kane in any significant way but it does give us another shade of Charles Foster Kane, what he might’ve been if he did the right thing on the eve of an election night. Indeed, if he weren’t so rich, a la Herman J. Mankiewicz, he might’ve been a great man. And he was

Written by Churchill Osimbo

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