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Mank (2020) Review

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Mank

Time: 131 Minutes
Age Rating: 860940[1] Offensive language & suicide references
Cast:
Gary Oldman as Herman J. Mankiewicz
Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies
Lily Collins as Rita Alexander
Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer
Tom Pelphrey as Joseph L. Mankiewicz
Sam Troughton as John Houseman
Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg
Tuppence Middleton as Sara Mankiewicz
Tom Burke as Orson Welles
Joseph Cross as Charles Lederer
Jamie McShane as Shelly Metcalf
Toby Leonard Moore as David O. Selznick
Monika Gossmann as Fräulein Frieda
Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst
Director: David Fincher

1930s Hollywood is re-evaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he races to finish “Citizen Kane.”

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Mank was one of my most anticipated movies of 2020. I really didn’t quite know what to expect from it; the summary didn’t really sound interesting as it was a movie about the writing of Citizen Kane (which I only got around to watching for the first times this year). The reason I was really interested in Mank was because it was David Fincher’s latest movie, and his first movie in 6 years since his previous movie with Gone Girl. Even then I’m not sure why he chose to do this out of everything, nonetheless I was interested. Having seen it, I can say that it’s quite different from anything he’s done before. It’s an incredibly well made and technically perfect film, and I was quite invested throughout.

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The script from Fincher’s father Jack Fincher is fantastic, and really works well. If you haven’t seen Citizen Kane, it might be worth checking it out now before watching Mank, honestly I think it’s a good movie that’s worth watching anyways. I will say at the very least, it would help to watch or read some brief summary about what Citizen Kane is about, just to give some level of context and to somewhat understand the references and connections. However, it’s not essential for enjoying Mank. Before I move onto what the movie is really about, I should mention the concerns from many that this script was written following a widely disputed article called Raising Kane claiming that Citizen Kane director Orson Welles didn’t deserve screenwriting credit. For those who really care deeply about these things, there’s a scene or two of Orson Welles towards the end of Mank at the end which might annoy you but that’s it. From what I can tell, the script was polished so that the anti-Welles aspect was toned down significantly. At its core, the movie is more about the protagonist’s life. Instead of showing the actual struggle of writing Citizen Kane, Mank chose to show the personal circumstances and political landscape that Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz was living in, and how those elements greatly influenced the film. The movie really started out mainly about the screenwriting, so when stuff like a governor election was constantly being mentioned, you didn’t know to begin with that it was a big part at first. This movie is really about Hollywood in the 30s and 40s, and while some might slap it with the label of being yet another love letter to Hollywood (i.e. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), Mank is not quite that. The movie really takes on the flaws of Hollywood and the old studio system, and evaluates their relevance in today’s society just as they were just under a century ago. It’s also refreshingly cynical, and what’s shown in this movie does really remain relevant to this day. Politics actually plays quite a large part in this movie. 30s Hollywood was heavily conservative, and while Mankiewicz was very much a staunch leftist socialist, he’s forced to support political ideologies that he’s fundamentally against to remain in the good graces of the heads of the studios that he’s working at. I thought that was very interesting to watch.

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Again, Fincher doesn’t show the impact of Citizen Kane, rather the political climate surrounding the time of its creation and release, and how huge an impact film has on people’s attitudes and even beliefs. I’m not going to say there’s an angle of viewing a movie that will guarantee you to love it, but it’s worth going in expecting a movie about 30s and 40s Hollywood and politics at the time more than a movie about the writing  Citizen Kane (or if you haven’t watched CK, the writing of a really old movie that’s apparently one of the greatest movies ever made). While among Fincher’s filmography I might not rewatch it all that much, I get the feeling that I would like and appreciate it a lot more if I rewatched it, now that I know what the movie is really about. As for the script itself, this is one of the best scripts that Fincher has worked with. I was constantly invested throughout the runtime. The scenes are written with a good flow (helped by the editing of course). It’s also surprisingly comedic, this is probably Fincher’s funniest movie next to Fight Club. Mank has a lot of dialogue and exposition, and fortunately the dialogue itself is greatly written and witty, the whole script in fact was quite witty. The actual structure of the whole movie mimics Citizen Kane’s, jumping all over the place between present day and numerous flashbacks. While some would find it to be rather messy, I was on board with this unconventional storytelling. If there’s a clear cut issue I had with the movie, I do have a minor issue with the ending. It’s not bad perse but it’s rather anti-climactic, especially with what came just beforehand. Another issue other was again with the portrayal of Orson Welles, who felt more like an abstraction and less of a person. Though I know certain people will take greater issue with it than I. As it was. he worked for the movie, even though it’s clear to even me that some parts didn’t happen like it was portrayed in the movie. I can see people calling the movie boring, and I don’t really blame them. I was never not invested in what was happening, but with the first act I was not really sure where this story was going. Once I knew what the movie was really about, that’s when I got fully on board with it.

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The performances were all great, and everyone played their parts very well. Gary Oldman gives quite possibly his career best performance as Herman J. Mankiewicz. As “Mank” he really does embody the protagonist well, as an alcoholic screenwriter, who can be frustrating at times but at the same time entertaining to watch and likable. Oldman really brings a lot of life to Mank and really makes him work. Amanda Seyfried is another standout, also giving possibly her best performance yet, she’s such an onscreen presence and stands out in every scene she’s in. Oldman and Seyfried particularly share excellent chemistry with each other. Lily Collins is also good, also playing off Oldman very well in her scenes. Charles Dance and Arliss Howard are other highlights in the supporting cast, and other actors like Tuppence Middleton, Tom Pelphrey and Tom Burke (the latter of whom does an excellent Orson Welles impression) also play their respective parts well.

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This is a David Fincher film, so you know it’s going to be fantastically directed, with a lot of attention to detail. Black and white aside, you wouldn’t know that Fincher directed this aside from the fact that it is perfect on a technical level. The cinematography is beautiful, with striking lighting, and seemed to imitate the lighting of Citizen Kane. There’s a moment where an empty bottle falls from an intoxicated Mank’s hand, filmed similarly to the opening of Citizen Kane with the dropping the snow globe. It really does fit the time period perfectly. The production and costume designs are great and accurate to the era. The sound design is worth mentioning too, as it’s imitating the sound of early theatres. There’s even cue marks or changeover cue (also known as cigarette burns) in the top right hand corner of the screen at points, which indicate that a reel needed to be changed back in the old days of film. Really everything is done to try to recreate the time period. The only thing missing is that it’s filmed on digital and the aspect ratio is different from back then, and making digital feel like film is quite impressive in itself. The editing is top notch too, as you’d expect from Fincher. Every time there’s a scene and time period change, words will be typed across the screen typed like a typewriter typing on a page, and it’s a simple yet effective technique. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross have been scoring David Fincher’s movies from The Social Network onwards, and they also did the score for Mank. This is quite a different type of score for them, apparently they were using instruments only available from the 30s and the music is very much jazz inspired. It fits the movie perfectly and really adds to the atmosphere.

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Mank is not going to appeal to a lot of people, and I can’t tell for sure whether you’ll like it or not. However I found it to be an incredible movie. The script was great and surprisingly dense, David Fincher’s direction is again outstanding, and the performances are all stellar, with Oldman and Seyfried being the highlights. I’m not sure I’d say that it’s one of Fincher’s best films as of yet, but that’s only because there are many other outstanding movies from him which I’d place before it. I still feel comfortable calling it one of the best films of 2020 for sure.