Mank (David Fincher, 2020)

Fincher’s newest feature has all the components of a film built for an Oscar: a captivating performance from Gary Oldman; sound design that transports you back to the 1940s era of Hollywood; and an insight into the birth of the historically iconic Citizen Kane. However, despite the sugar-coated looks with all the trimmings, the innards are hollow and lack substance.

There are a few reasons for this unfortunate loss of a potentially great insight into the beginnings of the pioneering work of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941).  Oldman’s character Herman Mankiewicz – the titular Mank as we come to know him – suffers from both mental and physical struggles over the course of the film, but his addictive personality and mental conflict never amount to as much as the physical injuries he deals with. His one broken leg from a car crash offered the audience more of an insight into his ‘race to finish the screenplay of Citizen Kane’ than his lightly-touched on, mostly humorous, struggles with alcoholism and gambling. Those are the types of characteristics that should provoke the audience into siding with the person on-screen, pulling you along and in and out of their questionable endeavours whilst they strive to produce a work of art so majorly innovative; and yet – nothing.

Mank with his finished screenplay.

The attentive touch of the monaural audio and authentic instruments recorded on older microphones that create the jazzy warm soundtrack are genuinely an appreciated touch to Mank, but this stops transporting us back to the black and white era of Hollywood when the story itself disengages us as when we come to realise there’s nothing really at stake. Yes, Mank is given 60 days to write a screenplay for the notable film industry figure Orson Welles (Tom Burke) when originally promised 90; yes, he has to do it whilst lying in bed with a broken leg; and, yes, he isn’t even promised credit! But these elements aren’t portrayed with a sense of urgency; they’re not particularly portrayed with a sense of anything. The narrative drifts along, and not much sticks. For a film about the making of one of the most seminal films ever created, involving one of the most iconic and genius persons of the film industry, Mank sure doesn’t do anything justice.

This is not to say that the film is a dull 2h11m stretch of wasted time. The film did not drag, I wasn’t bored, and the time passed rather nicely. I know this is down to the other positive factors of the film though which, if made without, the film would have flopped. The performances are brilliant; especially from Amanda Seyfried as the Hollywood star Marion Davies (friend of Mankiewicz) and her scenes together with Oldman are enjoyable to watch as their energy bounces off one-another in a matching dynamic. Oldman is undeniably a great actor and a driving presence on-screen, and this factor combined with the quality writing (the screenplay created by Fincher’s late father around the ‘90s) means the titular character is an interesting one to watch on-screen. Mank argues his drunken disputes and navigates the money-hungry industry, but these remarkably-performed scenes feel stand-alone as they aren’t strong enough to be efficacious to the overall point of the tale: that Mank was a washed-up screenwriter that suffered from addictions and yet somehow wrote one of the most compelling pieces of script writing in film history (Or did he? Mank and Welles’ individual involvement in the script is the age-old debate ‘discussed’ in this film, but Fincher adamantly takes the side of ‘Mank wrote the whole thing’ – the push and pull between the two large personalities would’ve been a far more interesting dynamic to watch on-screen). Mank’s opinions and actions in the 1930s flashbacks of his past career (which Fincher dips in and out of in an often bumpy way) are entertaining to watch but don’t allow us to feel anything substantial for him in his present-day scenes of bedridden scriptwriting in a cabin in the desert under the watchful eye of his personal secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins).

Gary Oldman (L) and Amanda Seyfried (R) as Herman Mankiewicz and Marion Davies.

Mank had the opportunity to be an homage to Citizen Kane, to pull obvious references from the film as an appreciation for the work or for audiences to have fun pointing out the referenced shots. For a film so recognisable and known, for films buffs or otherwise, Citizen Kane sure was lacking in Fincher’s retrospective piece. Understandably this film was about Herman Mankiewicz – it was not supposed to be a direct focus on Orson Welles, or on the actual filming of Citizen Kane – but to focus on Mank is to focus on the parentage of Rosebud and his inspiration for the character of Kane (supposedly based on the media mogul William Randolf Hearst (Charles Dance) that Mank so often collided with). It feels like a missed opportunity to have not taken further inspiration, added more references, or convey the exceptionality of Citizen Kane in Mank. This is likely from Fincher’s self-confessed opinion of Welles’ as not the genius he is revered as.  A modern reflection on the making of the script for Citizen Kane is allowed, and welcomed, but it almost feels like Fincher disregards Welles’ written contributions. To see more of the assumedly-conflicting working relationship between Mank and Welles’ would have been appreciated.

Charles Dance as William Randolf Hearst.

This could all be personal preference for a film I would have liked to see, or the result of watching something that didn’t match up with my pre-conceived expectations, but the conclusion of Mank is that the film relied too much on beautiful set design and cinematography that reflected an era of Hollywood that is aesthetically idolised, depending on that almost-nostalgic feeling for a romanticised vision of visual storytelling not seen in our modern Hollywood. The story did not portray the titular character’s personal struggles enough within the complex society that he lived in, and we did not get much of a reflection into the creation of the screenplay for Citizen Kane.


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