Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Grossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance, Ferdinand Kingsley
Written by his father before his death in 2003, it took almost two decades for David Fincher to bring Mank to the big screen and whether or not you agree with its portrayal of the fraught relationship between legendary screenwriter Herman L. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and iconic director Orson Welles (Tom Burke), the film is no doubt a love letter to the golden age of Hollywood.
Filmed in black-and-white, the trajectory of Mank follows a similar one to that of the background subject matter of the film, Welles’ cinematic touchstone Citizen Kane. Whereas that film saw a present day Joseph Cotten searching through old acquaintances trying to uncover the meaning of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane’s last word “Rosebud,” this film has the parade of characters move into and out of Mankiewicz’ bedroom as he recuperates from a near-fatal car accident. There is no dead man’s final words to propel this film, however. Instead, the audience travels back-and-forth in time, another cinematic throwback to Citizen Kane, as we explore the backroom machinations of Old Hollywood and the rise and fall of Mankiewicz that eventually led to his current removal from Hollywood to write the screenplay for which he would be forever linked.
There are more than a few other parallels between the original RKO Radio picture, which became a filmic reference point for multiple generations of filmmakers, and the Fincher film about the thorny subject of cinematic authorship. The auteur theory emerged out of the French New Wave and the Cahiers du Cinema. It postulated that the director is the true author of the picture, not the writers or the actors. Citizen Kane may well be one of the best examples of that early theory at work. Welles’ use of camera positions, novel framing devices, and the potent use of art to mirror and inform reality all came together in a landmark picture. While Mank has no illusions about being exemplary of such, it’s a fascinating look back at Hollywood in the 1930s and the evolution of modern cinema that came from it.
Although color films were gaining traction from their evolution in the mid-1930s to the heyday of 1939 with films like Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, a hallmark of the era in its own right, black-and-white filmmaking continued for another four decades before fading out almost entirely. The Apartment was the last black-and-white film to win Best Picture until Steven Spielberg supplanted that with 1993’s Schindler’s List. 2011’s The Artist was only the second film since the fade out of black-and-white filmmaking to win the coveted award and, by all ledgers, Mank could have been the most recent, but it ultimately falls short of the qualities a great Best Picture winner needs, including most specifically a singular focus.
Gary Oldman tries his best to act as that central figure around which the film revolves and his perfect delivery and tone help guide that. Yet, setting an entire film around a sarcastic and opinionated man doesn’t quite provide the grand cinematic experience one would hope. Oldman doesn’t quite make Mank likeable. Understandable perhaps, but his failures are a product of his own doing, setting foot in one bear trap after another causing his entire house of cards to collapse. Perhaps this kind of character is more alike Willian Randolph Hearst and his Welles simulacrum Charles Foster Kane than he cares to imagine. He had power and position and threw it all away in a fit of pique and selfishness.
Seyfried comes off far better as the sympathetic Marion Davies, a Hollywood starlet married to newspaper magnate Hearst. She’s not only ebullient and witty, she’s the exact opposite of Oldman. She’s compassionate to a fault, misunderstood to a great degree, and far more formidable a human being than anyone else around her. Seyfried comes alive in this performance, her best to date, especially in the late-film scene where she admonishes Mank for his nihilistic outlook on life, highlighted by his quixotic tilt at the Hearst windmill.
Surrounding these two central figures are actors of strong carriage who deliver convincing performances. Arliss Howard’s self-assurance as studio head Louis B. Mayer plays out best when he’s shifting in tone between gracious, self-effacing studio leader convincing his employees to take pay cuts during the Great Depression and self-centered egoist convinced Upton Sinclair is a Commie-loving socialist bent on destroying the studio he’s built up. Tom Pelphrey does solid work as Mank’s younger brother Joseph L. Mankiewicz, a man who would eventually eclipse his brother as a legendary figure in Hollywood history.
Lily Collins is adequate, but blends with the wallpaper of Mank’s Victorville, California cottage. She gives Mank his moral compass in the present-day scenes, but does little else to distinguish herself in those moments, a serious shortcoming of the screenplay. Sam Troughton is fine as John Houseman, but never gives him the gravitas the figure should have had. Burke as Welles is given minimal scenes and early on is treated with mystery and suspense, hiding him between reverse and oblique angles, but eventually bringing him out in explosive fashion late in the film. Burke does a fine impression, but the performance is mostly superficial as he’s meant to be a sort of villain to the piece in terms of his positioning as Mank’s historic foil.
This all leaves Dance as Hearst himself to round out the film’s prominent players. Hearst’s larger than life personality is toned down here as the dynamic and powerful man is presented as an unassuming figure of great wealth who happens to have people throwing themselves at his feet. He’s humanized to an extent, but most of that comes from Seyfried’s description of him rather than anything Dance gets to do as the character.
Fincher’s film is a work of passion and drive even if it sometimes lacks direction and purpose. Every pain has been taken to ensure the film feels at one with the Golden Age of Hollywood nearly a century ago, down to the cue marks in the upper right corner to signal a projectionist to change reels. Although we are a far removed from the necessity of changing reels mid-projection, these are the kinds of cinematic touches that appeal to cineastes even if they are atypical of the modern theatrical experience.
The film does more than just act as a cinematic transition from our fading era of mass audiences heading to the theater for a shared experience to whatever rises from the ashes of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s also a strangely fitting look back at an era of political upheaval in California not dissimilar from the rise of the liberal left and the last grasps of the conservative right. The film goes to great lengths to compare that period where upstart Democrat Upton Sinclair is labeled a socialist with pie-in-the-sky dreams that will break the backs of business in the state to recent political movements. While the film is striking in that regard, it’s a notion that has been explored countless times before. Yet, somehow this film feels even more prescient in its own exploration of the past.
Mank is what every young film enthusiast hopes to accomplish when they go to film school or move to Hollywood to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. Fincher’s experience as a filmmaker gives the film that added gloss that most inexperienced filmmakers wouldn’t be able to project. There’s also a certain vanity in it. Fincher tries his best to keep that notion restrained, since it’s his father’s screenwriting vision and not his own, but for all his experience, Fincher is a film lover at heart and one cannot fault him for doing everything he can to convey that love of cinema to others.
Guarantees: Cinematography, Production Design, Costume Design, Makeup & Hairstyling
Probables: Picture, Directing, Actor (Gary Oldman), Supporting Actor (Charles Dance), Supporting Actress (Amanda Seyfried), Original Screenplay, Original Score, Film Editing
December 15, 2020