Sunday, December 6, 2020



The big thing trending movie-wise now is MANK, an exaggerated biopic of 1930s Hollywood screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz. 

The film purports to tell how Mankiewicz, suffering the after-effects of a car crash and holed up in a desert retreat, wrote what would become the basis of CITIZEN KANE. While writing, Mankiewicz has flashbacks to earlier in his Hollywood career, where he worked for--and battled--some of the most famous names in the industry. 

Director David Fincher, working from a script written by his father, filmed MANK in black & white, and he also chose to ape CITIZEN KANE's style, with many flashbacks and flashforwards. The cinematography (by Erik Messerschmidt) is excellent, but Fincher's visual and editing tricks I felt got in the way of the story. 

Certainly MANK will get the attention of film geeks, but this is not a love letter to the Golden Age of Hollywood. Studio bigwigs such as Mayer, Thalberg, and Selznick are portrayed as greedy louts, and Mankiewicz and his fellow screenwriter drinking buddies have plenty of self-loathing in them. 

Gary Oldman gives another tour de force performance as Mankiewicz. Once again Oldman seems not to act, but to become an entirely different person. Oldman's Mank is an acerbic alcoholic who goes out of his way to annoy and offend everyone around him. The irony is--and I assume that this irony was intended by the filmmakers--is that for all of Mankiewicz's cynical wit and biting of the hands that feed him, he's still nothing more than an employee, and reliant upon, the studio system he disparages. 

Mankiewicz's closest relationship isn't with his wife--it's his friendship with movie star Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who was also media baron William Randolph Hearst's mistress. (Hearst is cleverly played in this movie by Charles Dance.) Davies winds up being the only person in the film who is truly honest and self-aware, but Mank winds up upsetting her as well. The major reason Mankiewicz doesn't come off as totally unlikable is due to the force of Oldman's performance. 

The movie bogs down in the middle due to a sub-plot involving the 1934 California gubernatorial race, in which author Upton Sinclair ran as a socialist. MANK suggests that Mankiewicz's despondency over how Hollywood bigwigs worked to make sure Sinclair was defeated was a major impetus toward his writing the KANE script. My internet research revealed that the real-life Mankiewicz wasn't particularly interested in Sinclair's campaign. It seemed to me that this subplot was the story that Fincher really wanted to tell. 

As for the movie's depiction of how the KANE script was written, and how much of it by who, there's plenty of historical evidence either way. I will say that Tom Burke, who plays Orson Welles, has the man down cold. 

MANK contains another magnificent performance from Gary Oldman, and it has plenty of references and famous person cameos for film buffs. But it's more interesting than enjoyable, and one shouldn't take all the incidents in it at face value. 

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