Mank is a film is a film about the writer Herman Mankiewicz, specifically during the time (1940) he spent writing the script for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, though there are flashbacks to 1930 and other years in the 30s. David Fincher directed Gary Oldman in the title role.
Mankiewicz (called Mank by everyone in the film) was 43 years old in 1940. Oldman is 62 and looks every year of it. The English actor is celebrated for many of his portrayals, especially that of Winston Churchill in the 2017 movie Darkest Hour for which he won the Academy Award as best actor. In the current production he seems more like Churchill than the New York City born son of Jewish-German immigrants.
Mank is another of a seemingly endless stream of movies about movies. If you are not up on who was who in Hollywood in the 30s you may be baffled by the names that are dropped more frequently than the Hs of 100 Cockneys on speed. No matter, most are superfluous to the story. Said story is that a drunken Mank wrote the screenplay, based on William Randolph Hearst, all by himself and that Welles undeservedly shared credit for the script. Accordingly, Welles also shared the Academy Award for it. The truth, which is incidental for a good film, appears to be that both wrote the script.
Fincher filmed Mank in high definition black and white (the cinematographer is Erik Messerschmidt) that is so bright that it resembles an infrared picture. I found it annoying and likely to cause a fit in those susceptible to eccentric light. Visual unease is an integral part of high definition photography – still or moving.
Most of the characters are either unlikable or uninteresting. This includes Mank, Orson Welles played by Tom Burke, and actor-producer John Houseman (Sam Droughton). The only sympathetic players are Hearst (Charles Dance) and his mistress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).
Dance steals every scene he’s in (unfortunately just a few) and makes Hearst seem much more alert and savvy than Mank. Makeup should have gotten him a better wig, but that aside he’s wonderful. He figuratively makes a monkey out of Mank. You’ll have to see the movie to understand how.
Davies is depicted as a poor, relatively uneducated, and unsophisticated girl from Brooklyn – out of her depth in a sea of pseudo intellectuals. The real Davies was the daughter of a successful lawyer and judge. Her films were very successful in the 20s. Her association with the character of Susan Alexander Kane in Citizen Kane has overshadowed her true persona. Mank’s use of her as a model for Susan is depicted as a betrayal, which in context it is, despite Mank’s onscreen denial.
Mank in the part of the film that’s not a flashback spends most of his time in bed in a leg cast the result of an auto accident. Most of this time is spent being nasty to everyone around him including a long suffering wife (Tuppence Middleton) while being stinking drunk. Much, in several flashbacks, is made of the 1934 California gubernatorial election that pitted the socialist muckraker Upton Sinclair (posing as a democrat – think Bernie Sanders) against Frank Merriam. Merriam’s win seems to have left an unhealed wound across liberal moviemakers, like that of Amfortas in Wagner’s Parsifal. An aside, Merriam won with less than 50% of the vote because a moderate Democrat ran a third party candidacy and siphoned votes from the radical Sinclair who later moved to Delaware to lessen his tax bill – sic hypocritae .
Jack Fincher (David’s late father) wrote the script about 25 years ago. In it he has Hearst bankroll a dirty campaign against Sinclair. Mank is complicit even though he’s a lefty. Remorse is set as his reason for attacking Hearst even though doing so damages Davies whom he likes.
Fincher puts an orotund mote juste into almost all of Mank’s utterances. He sounds like he got a garbled list of Oscar Wilde’s epigrams. Every conversation sounds prefabricated. People don’t talk the way they do in Mank, not even those who had a dual major in literature and philosophy at an Ivy League asylum.
Mank had a limited theatrical run and then was sent to Netflix where it currently resides. In this time of maximal screen to eye contact, Mank is an acceptable way to way to waste 2 hours and 11 minutes. Citizen Kane remains Orson Welles’ creature. Herman Mankiewicz, though a talented writer, is a minor Hollywood figura.