Movie Review: Mank

Mank is a film about Hollywood. To narrow down that a little more, it's a film about a period in the life of screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz in which he conceived of and wrote the screenplay that would become Citizen Kane. Mankiewicz drew on his own experiences with William Randolph Hearst, Louis B. Mayer, Irving Thalberg, and Marion Davies, which made everyone attempt to talk him out of the project. They wanted to warn him away from this subject because he was going to make very powerful enemies who could ruin him if his alcoholism didn't do that first. The film stars Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Grossman, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, Tom Burke, Ferdinand Kingsley, Jamie McShane, and Charles Dance. The film is written by Jack Fincher and directed by David Fincher. The film is streaming exclusively on Netflix.


It's always strange to me the intention of a modern filmmaker to use the techniques of the period in which the film takes place to complete their vision. I'm not writing that it's a bad technique or idea, just that in Mank it makes the film seem far more affected, a little more artificial, that coupled with the HD digital cameras and I never felt I could get lost in the story because I felt like there was a great amount of artificiality to it.


That may have been Fincher's point. In this case that would be David, the director, who is interpreting Jack, the writer's, ideas as Jack passed on in 2003. Fincher may have wanted us to see, as Mank sees, the complete and utter falsity that exists within the Hollywood system or in movie making in general. It's especially pointed as Mank and his arguably more famous to us now kid brother, Joseph, watch Louis B. Mayer tell his employees he has to cut back wages during the depression and uses his stars as backers to stifle discontent among the working classes.


The stifling nature is also what spurns the debate of a much grander idea of who has authorship over Citizen Kane. As evidenced in Mank, it's Mank's ideals and experiences that fuel the drama of Citizen Kane. Yet, when we think of the film, there is only Orson Welles. This was the auteur theory before it became a theory that was bandied about as frequently as it is now. It was as rare then as it is now to have someone write, produce, direct, and star in a film. We tend to assign a face value and a black and white image to where the praise or the blame of a film's authorship should be assigned (something I've attempted to dissuade in these reviews by pointing out the artisans that are just as much a part of the process as the director).


Face value is also what we assign to many people in the industry who we will never truly know. Some of the best scenes in Mank are the scenes in which Mank and Marion Davies are engaged in conversation. Marion Davies is often just seen as the trophy wife of William Randolph Hearst, the showgirl who married up, but Mank and by extension the film Mank actually sees her as a rounded and intelligent human being. It's even something Mank has to defend time and again to people reading his script for the first time that while the character in the Citizen Kane script is the type of woman people believe Marion to be, she's not actually Marion.


These intimate and wonderful scenes wouldn't have been sold for me if not for the terrific performance of Amanda Seyfried. Seyfried is an actress who likely faces the same challenges as Davies. She is a blonde bombshell after all, but what I have always seen and I think what she has always strived for is for us to see the incredible talent she has underneath. She's quick, she's languid, her style is laid back and welcoming. I truly appreciate her abilities to breathe new life into a woman who has been written off so often as an asterisk in the entry of a "great" man.


I didn't love everything about Mank. I even found somethings far too silly and distracting, like the black dot in the corner meant to signify when a projectionist is intended to change a reel. There were also several shots that matched famous ones in Citizen Kane and a structure that matched that film's structure of a framing device in the "present" being a set up for the past that felt in some parts unnecessary. Yet, the performances, though affected in many ways, are incredibly captivating. It's a worthy film narrative of an unsung man who got in his own way far more than anyone else did. If you're a devotee of old Hollywood and know of the seediness behind the glitz and glamor, you wouldn't be troubled by an evening with these characters, but if you don't know your Selznicks from your Thalbergs, this may not be the picture for you.

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