In Reviews

December 4th, 2020




Within the bloodstream of David Fincher’s Mank is all things cinema. The studios, the stars, the directors, the politics, and everything else in-between. It’s a film about the famous script writer of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane– Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) and although it is not nearly as close to Fincher’s most prolific films- Seven, The Social Network, Fight Club– it is above all, a fascinating piece of work. There’s so much to talk about with Mank, something that no review, nor conversation can fully cover all that it says, and I feel that when the dust settles, through the pain of Covid, and 2020, audiences will look back at Mank quite fondly. It’s ultimately a story about one man, but it’s also about the surrounding pride, the power of others, and the men in Hollywood that wrestle with the demons of being entertainers. Herman Mankiewicz wrote the screenplay for one of cinema’s greatest pictures and Mank captures how the pursuit of greatness can swallow a man whole.

For a majority of this story, the focus is on Herman Mankiewicz, and his rush to write the script for Welles, the legendary director is pushing his weight to get the screenplay in his hands on time. A series of events make the process more difficult. Herman is bed ridden, after a painful car accident results in a broken leg, forcing him to be put up in a cabin in the desert, with his transcriber Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) by his bedside. Rita’s job description is a bit more than that, an ear for Herman to talk to, and someone to keep the booze away. Keeping Herman sober was not a successful attempt, where the writer was a fast talker, serial gambler, and constant drinker, but truth be told, he was a better writer because of it. The screenplay, written by Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, bounces back and forth between flashbacks and flashforwards, highlighting major moments in Mank’s life, the people around him, his inspirations for the script, and the crippling politics of Hollywood that tried to keep everyone in their place. Not Mank. He was a figure that still cannot be pinned down.

Mank is shot in a crisp and glorious black and white and it has all of the technical wizardry of a Las Vegas magician. Cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt undoubtedly worked sleepless nights with Fincher to get it just right. Expert lighting shines down on Mank, cracking through the windows, or lighting up a smoky screening room. The lights shine in like cathedrals of cinema. The costumes highlight the glorious studio era of movies, worn gorgeously by Amanda Seyfried, playing a vivacious Marion Davies. Her supporting role is one of the big performances in Mank– by far some of her best work, playing the Brooklyn starlit girlfriend to William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and a confidant ear for Mank to whisper his miserable emotions to. It’s Davies, Hearst, and everyone else surrounding Mank that suffocate him, like a cavalcade of eyes, breathing down his neck, looking for his next quip, his next opinion on politics, or unfiltered commentary. That is where the drama arrives. Where Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) pushes his studio head powers to ask his “family” of employees for a pay cut, all while turning around and pushing his writers to donate money to fund the California race for mayor. There is a massive system at play in Mank and in many respects it makes a big man such as Herman Mankiewicz look small, constantly fighting to stay above water, and put his stamp on the art of cinema.

It is that very sentiment, a constant struggle for survival, that I was picking up on in Mank. Fincher, not typically a director of subtlety, is weaving many more human threads this time. The way politics and money dictated who would succeed and who would not in Hollywood. The result Fincher ends at is even colder than a couple watching buildings crumble to destruction, a big tech CEO obsessing over the woman that slighted him, or a serial killer delivering a severed head in a box. Mank was a man that constantly reached to prove himself among the wealthy kings of cinema, such as Hearst, Mayer, or later Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kingsley), and even when he had written his great masterpiece, someone such as Welles (Tom Burke) was fighting him to share the credit.

There may be many caveats that come with recommending Mank. I think cinema buffs will eat it all up, appreciating the capturing of a begotten era, the pristine technical achievements, and standout performances from Seyfried, Collins, and of course Oldman. The Darkest Hour Oscar winner is slightly delivering better work here than the one that got him the golden statue, where his performance is richer with complexity and humanity. For other audience members they might not care, may not even have seen Citizen Kane, or feel the cold chill of how Herman Mankiewicz was treated in the end. Either way, it’s a piece of cinema for David Fincher that speaks more about him than his subject. He’s a director that is wrestling with the way audiences see movies today, the pressure that studios place on an artist, or the work a person can put into a project and lose all sense of self. I have to believe that David Fincher sees a bit of himself in Herman Mankiewicz. A bit tortured, brilliant, slightly neurotic, but worthy of incredible praise. And after all the lights go down, the show will continue to go on.



Written by: Leo Brady

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