Matthew at the Movies: Mank (2020)

Mank looked to be one of 2020’s best films, but its few saving graces can’t save the more mediocre aspects of the film.

Mank, directed by David Fincher, is a fictionalized account of Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz as he tries to finish the screenplay for Citizen Kane while dealing with his personal life and alcoholism. The film released on Netflix on December 4th of last year.

Citizen Kane is one of my favorite films. David Fincher is one of my favorite directors. Logically, combining two of my favorite things should be a good thing, right? Well, my only sentiment after finishing Mank was “it’s fine.”

It’s a fine movie. Decent performances. Good camerawork. A fine script. It’s entertaining for 130 minutes. However, coming from Fincher, it feels a little unimpressive. 

The film is based on an essay by famed film critic Pauline Kael, “Raising Kane”, the essay was a historical overview of the making and impact of Citizen Kane. In her essay, Kael posited that it was Herman Mankiewicz that wrote Citizen Kane, and not co-written by him and Orson Welles. She also posited that Welles was a controlling egomaniac. So, if he was, then why did he agree to a co-credit? Kael’s writing about the authorship of the film has been greatly discredited and disproved by many. (Here’s a good video about that)

I’m glad it doesn’t go head-first into Kael’s widely disregarded argument, as the original script was very anti-Welles, according to Fincher, so it was worked by Fincher and his producer Eric Roth; however, it does get on my nerves whenever the claim is proposed and implied in the film. Both Mankiewicz and Welles wrote drafts for Citizen Kane, then called American, and Welles combined what he liked of both scripts for the final film, but I guess that isn’t as dramatic, rich, and self-loathing as Mankiewicz’s constant struggle with himself, his friends, and fighting his white whale called Citizen Kane.  

Technically unimpressive, but thematically rich, Mank feels like the last dying breath of old Hollywood. The business isn’t about pictures anymore, it’s about money. Money is what runs the industry now, anyone that tells you any different is a two-faced liar. It’s the prelude to McCarthyism and the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), with constant arguments about capitalistic greed and wealth, socialism, and communism. It’s cynical, simple enough. 

The replication of old Hollywood worked for some people, but that just doesn’t do it for me. Mank doesn’t really do anything new or interesting, technically-speaking. Fincher and cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt “recreate” the 1930s’-look by shooting in “glorious” digital black-and-white. 

Perhaps it’s going for an imitation-esque rather than trying to genuinely recreate that look and going for a hazy recollection of events, but it just didn’t work for me. My main issue is the lighting, which really could’ve been utilized better, as that’s a lot of the charm for those black-and-white films.

I’m willing to bet that this is Fincher’s most personal film, as his late father wrote the script, but the script is just fine. It’s not offensively bad nor exceedingly great, it’s just fine. The acting doesn’t do much to improve the script either, but that’s not to say it’s bad. Gary Oldman, who plays Mankiewicz, is fine. I’d say he’s most likely to, undeservedly, nab an Oscar for Best Actor; his career peaked with Sid & Nancy and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and he’s been living off that high ever since.

Despite his little screen time, I enjoyed Tom Burke as Orson Welles. I felt his impression got lost whenever he yelled, but I enjoyed him nonetheless. Out of the main cast, Amanda Seyfried shines the brightest, literally, I’m pretty sure they had a whole lighting set-up dedicated for her and her eyes. However, my favorite performance was from Jamie McShane as Shelly Metcalf, he’s the heart of this movie. My other favorite was Bill Nye, who played Upton Sinclair and whom I really wanted to see more of. 

The film is very interesting for one main aspect: its politics. The film takes the structure of Citizen Kane by jumping around in time, but the majority of it takes place before the HUAC was created in 1938. Despite this, you can already feel the tensions and the beginnings of the Red Scare. Upton Sinclair is running for Governor, and he’s a socialist. Oh god, a socialist? Doesn’t that mean he’s also a communist? 

No, as Mankiewicz explains in a scene at a party where he and a few other socialites are discussing the difference: “In socialism, everyone shares the wealth. In communism, everyone shares the poverty.” Mankiewicz, may or may not be socialist, but he’s definitely a socialist sympathizer, but during this time, that makes you a socialist, and by proxy, a communist. I actually really liked the political aspects of the film, and I found them more interesting than Mankiewicz’s self-loathing attitude. 

Overall, Mank is a well-made film. It’s fine. Decades from now, it’ll only be remembered for being directed by David Fincher; if he didn’t do it, this would’ve been another Oscar-bait wagon-vehicle for an Best Actor nomination for Oldman. (3.5/5)

P.S. I’m still working on that Wonder Woman 1984 review, which will come out next week, as I have a lot to say about it. Hint: not good things.

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