2018, R, 131 mins
Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz / Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies / Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst / Lily Collins as Rita Alexander / Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer / Tom Pelphrey as Joseph Mankiewicz / Sam Troughton as John Houseman / Tom Burke as Orson WellesDirected by David Fincher / Written by Jack Fincher
thinking an awful lot about David Fincher's new fact based Netflix period
drama MANK, which takes its name from the famous American screenwriter
Herman J. Mankiewicz, who's perhaps best known in cinema circles for
co-winning an Oscar for the screenplay to what's largely considered the
greatest film of all time in CITIZEN KANE.
Mankiewicz's collaboration with Orson Welles has been the stuff of
contentious legend, with a lion's share of the controversy hovering over
whether or not "Mank" was the primary writer of Welles' iconic
film; he once said "The fact is that there isn't one single line in
the picture that wasn't in writing - writing from and by me - before ever
a camera turned."
absolutely fertile behind the scenes historical ground to be covered in a
film, and MANK makes a very reasonable claim that the titular writer was
indeed a sizeable driving force in the shaping and penning of CITIZEN KANE
and that Welles - through his very presence as a newly arrived "boy
wonder" in Hollywood and some questionable contract negotiations -
tried to stymie Mankiewicz's contributions and take full credit himself.
Fincher seems like a solid fit for such material, and MANK is
positively dripping with Old Hollywood glamour and atmosphere, all
lovingly and meticulously photographed in lush black and white to evoke
the films of yesteryear. On top of that, we also have another truly
brilliant turn by Academy Award winner Gary Oldman as the beleaguered
writer himself. Days after
seeing MANK I find myself still taken in with the visual and production
artifice of the piece, but where the film fails for me, though, is that
it's not an altogether absorbing chronicle of the pre-production back
stage politics of the making of CITIZEN KANE, nor does it offer up much in
terms of the creative aspects of Mankiewicz's process in writing its
script. MANK reminded me of
the recent films of Christopher Nolan: Unparalleled technical masterpieces
and impeccably made on a level of pure craft, but films that failed to
engage me emotionally or dramatically.
I guess there's a
claim to be made that MANK is not about CITIZEN KANE's production,
but is rather about Mankiewicz himself, his career struggles, his
chronic addictions, and the ordeals that this former critic turned
screenwriter went through to receive credit for CITIZEN KANE.
Fincher's film (which, incidentally, was written by his late father
David Fincher in the 1990s) is not an all inclusive biopic of Mankiewicz,
but rather focuses on a few key decades of the man's working life in
Hollywood, more specifically the roughly sixty day period that he
pressured through to make Welles' (Tom Burke) imposed deadline to finish
the screenplay. Added on to that are flashbacks to the previous
decade that shows Mankiewicz's comings and goings and his relationships
with various industry power players.
The scenes set in the "present" show Mankiewicz (Gary
Oldman, in peak method form) slaving away at the KANE script at a
California ranch while recovering from horrific injuries suffered in a
nearly tragic car accident. He has two assistants that help him with his soon-to-be
massive 300 page script: Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) and Freulein
Alexander (Monika Grossman), the former of which takes dictation from the
bed ridden Mank.
frequently interrupted by the recurring presence of Mercury Theater liaison
John Houseman (Sam Troughton), who pops in to ensure that Mank is getting
the job done that Welles has hired him for.
From here the film segues back and forth from present to past and
shows Mank cozying up to various industry folk, some looming quite large
in terms of power and influence, like studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Arliss
Howard), Irvin Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and David O. Selznick (Toby
Leonard Moore). The biggest
of Mank's big wig friends is newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst
(Charles Dance), and we witness his attempts to cast his influence over
the larger world of politics outside of the movies during the 30s.
Mank was also very cozy with Hearst's lover, Marion Davies (Amanda
Seyfried), and we get snippets here and there about how his ties to her
and Hearst had a clear cut influence in Mank shaping KANE's script in
terms of its key characters. Meanwhile and in the present, the looming presence of Welles
- who barely appears in the film - begins to weigh heavily down on Mank
while he tries to finish his scripting assignment, which builds to a
unavoidable showdown between the two men.
Right from the
get-go it's abundantly clear that MANK is an absolute visual dynamo in
multiple respects. Fincher has taken great conceptual pains to ensure that his
film not only evokes the period in question, but also has the veneer that
it could have been made back then as well.
The dazzling black and white cinematography by Erik Messerschmidt
(which has obviously been tinkered with via post-production VFX work) is
the film's main selling grace (the meticulous control freak in Fincher
even went as far as to include subtle touches, like digitally inserting
small circles in the corner of the frame to suggest old timey film reel
changes). Trish Summerville's award worthy period costumes help sell
the illusion to great effect, and frequent Fincher collaborators in Trent
Reznor and Atticus Ross concoct a wondrous music score that feels like it
was plucked from a production from the 40s.
Fincher, if anything, has routinely made a name for himself for
being one of cinema's most confident craftsmen, and MANK further props up
that claim: As a recreation of Tinseltown of old, this is as superlative
as anything I've seen outside of Tarantino's ONCE
UPON A TIME IN HOLLYWOOD.
Some have labeled
MANK as a love letter to Old Hollywood.
That's just partially true.
Fincher is clearly enamored with exploring the sights and sounds of
the times in question and painstakingly recreating them in every minute
detail, but MANK also wisely hones in on the obvious sleaze factor that
permeated the industry back then, which definitely doesn't make the film a
wholly squeaky clean portrayal. MANK
displays many of the more omnipresent power brokers for what they were:
manipulative, egomaniacal, corrupt, and willing to bury anyone for profit. Very few punches are pulled when it comes to this film's
ridicule of the aforementioned moguls, with Mayer in particular being
revealed as a deeply conveying figure of immense supremacy.
Even Welles himself here (in, again, the few scenes he occupies)
comes off as a young and entitled narcissist that perhaps props himself up
on too high of a pedestal. The
point here is that Fincher shows Old Hollywood as a superficial place of
glamour and fame, but slowly pulls the curtain on that to reveal the
darker heart of darkness the lurks beneath.
That, and MANK is
respectfully unsparing to, well, Mank himself, who's shown fairly as a
brilliant author with a delicious sense of deadpan humor, but one that
clearly let his alcoholism get the better of him at the most inopportune
times. Mankiewicz is
certainly framed with modest levels of sympathy (imagine having to work
under the overwhelming control freak presence of Welles cast over you and
ordering you to pen a masterpiece in just sixty days...and then trying to
remove your credit from such an project?), but MANK is arguably just as
critical of the legendary screenwriter as well.
Fincher takes a warts and all approach, who shows him as a man that
perhaps was the smartest man in any given room, but whose drunken behavior
and penchant for being a smooth talking wise ass easily makes him
insufferable during many key scenes in the film.
Oldman's tour de force and immersive performance is mesmerizing to
behold, and the veteran actor manages to effectively play up to all of the
contradictions of Mankiewicz to fully evoke a shrewd intellectual that
just so happened to do a lot of dumb things to alienate people.
Oldman could easily net his second Oscar for his commanding turn
But, alas, this
brings me to an unavoidable question that I have to pose: Why didn't I
care more about what was happening in this film?
Why wasn't I as invested in the history here as much as I wanted to
be? MANK is so
extraordinary on a performance and technical level, but I felt so little
while watching it. I wouldn't
go as far as describing MANK as soulless, but something just pushed me
away at a distance from fully embracing Fincher's efforts here.
Maybe it has something do with MANK not telling me much about the
creation of CITIZEN KANE that I didn't already know.
Scenes between Mank and Welles are so woefully few and far between
(granted, I can understand why Fincher wanted Welles more on the sidelines
in order to make the story more about Mank himself).
Beyond that, what about Mankiewicz's whole writing process itself? A film about the scripting of the greatest film ever made
should say something about how Mank
wrote, but Fincher seems oddly and disappointingly reticent in doing so.
I never felt invested because, deep down, there's just so many unappealing
personas in the film that I had a hard time latching onto, Mank himself
included. That doesn't mean
that you can't make great films about sad sacks, but outside of Mank we're
given a relative cavalcade of disagreeable chaps cheating their way to
success, and the actors are good here, but the moguls they occupy don't
entirely feel well rounded as characters (they float in here and there in
the story, which leads to another issue being that the flashback structure
really takes some time to acclimate to).
Sometimes the cutting back and forth is seamless, sometimes it's
not, whereas early on in the film it becomes a tad disorienting trying to
make out past from present. Women
feature heavily in Mank's life during the decades presented, and they're
possibly the only figures in the narrative that are presented in a decent
light. Still, for as
favorably as Fincher portrays Golden Age Hollywood starlet Marion Davis,
Seyfried seems ill at ease in the role and is rarely convincing when
playing off of Oldman. That,
and the women in general here mere marginalized ciphers servicing the
needs of the male characters instead of being fully developed characters
on their own.