Reviews Mank review: A scintillating look at the genius of Herman Mankiewicz

Mank review: A scintillating look at the genius of Herman Mankiewicz

Rating: 4/5

David Fincher departs from his usual style to direct a riveting, personal film about Mank, the screenwriter of the film widely regarded as the greatest film of all time: Citizen Kane.

Story

Mank follows a non-linear story structure similar to the one in Citizen Kane. The first story thread follows Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), or as he likes to be called, Mank, in 1940, on bed rest, after a car accident, as he races to finish the first draft of his film of Citizen Kane, demanded by the 24-year-old hotshot, Orson Welles (Tom Burke), within 60 days.

The second story thread follows Mank from the early 1930s to the end of the decade as he faces situations that led him to write such a great yet controversial film. The film offers a peek into the socio-political landscape in of Hollywood through the scathing wit of Mank, after the Great Depression and before the end of the second world war.

It follows how he came to know and understand William Randolf Hearst (Charles Dance), the millionaire newspaper tycoon, on whom the character of Charles Foster Kane, the tragic protagonist of Citizen Kane, is unofficially based on. 

As time goes on, Mank, the infamous alcoholic, also starts to understand the power he wields as a filmmaker and storyteller.

Performances

Mank has some of the best performances of 2020.

The clear standout performance is Gary Oldman as the quick-witted drunk, Mank. He is chaotic, messy, unpredictable and an absolute delight to watch. He is an idealistic addict who will do anything to get his way even if causes him more harm than good. Oldman stumbles his way across the whole film as he inhabits the quirks, ideals and bluntness of Mank.

Amanda Seyfried plays Marion Davies, partner to the much older William Hearst. To the public eye, she is just another dumb blonde mistress over whom Hearst showers his adoration, but Mank sees Davies for the smart, carefree and reckless woman she is. Her chemistry with Oldman is undeniably magnetic. 

Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, co-founder of Metro – Goldwyn – Mayer (MGM) Studios, is absolutely hateful. We understand why Mank despises him. Ferdinand Kingsley as Irving Thalberg, a prominent producer in MGM, also gives a performance full of conviction. 

All the other supporting characters are fantastic as is expected from a director as meticulous as Fincher

Positives

Mank was an incredibly personal film for David Fincher as it was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, nearly 30 years ago.

Jack Fincher was a writer for journalist and writer for Life magazine and a cinephile, which is quite evident from the deeply layered writing in the film. He clearly understood what went behind the making of films and the politics involved with it.

The quick witty dialogues are reminiscent of David Fincher’s 2010 film, The Social Network, written by Aaron Sorkin, where he clearly established that despite being known for his visual style, he has a lot to bring to the table for a more dialogue-based film.

The film is also deeply political as Mank himself was political. In a genius directorial move, Fincher cast Bill Nye, a well-known figure attached to science and facts as a socialist Democratic Party candidate running for Governor.

In general, the film draws several parallels to Citizen Kane itself as it slowly reveals the true purpose of this film full of meta-commentary. The film is really a deconstruction of the “magic of movies”, as writers are told to “write hard, aim low”, while revealing the true genius of this business, “This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory.”

The dense writing and direction ensure that there is a lot to unpack on repeat viewings of the film.

As per usual with David Fincher films, the technical aspects are absolutely perfect. 

Mank mostly relies on its excellent dialogue and acting to bring out its themes but Fincher’s decisions, such as to shoot the film on film and black and white lent a key aesthetic to the film.

The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is mostly composed of beautiful jazz pieces that are neither dated nor do they feel out of place.

Negatives

The major problem with Mank is its inaccessibility to people who are not cinephiles. Much like Citizen Kane, the film offers glimpses into a man’s life and is not his entire biography.

The general public hasn’t seen Citizen Kane nor has much idea about the background in Hollywood during the 1930s. The film also doesn’t attempt to address any of these questions directly. While this is good writing, it leaves a lot of the audience in the dark. 

Watching Citizen Kane is almost a prerequisite to watch this film.

Worth It?

David Fincher is known for his dark and enigmatic films. Mank, in comparison, has much more digestible subject matter.

Though the film is very well made with incredible dialogue and performances, it will have a divided reaction from the audiences who fail to grasp what the film is about simply due to a lack of reference.

However, this film is unmissable if you consider yourself a cinephile.


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