Film

Review: Mank Delves into the Process, Memories and Later Years of a Classic Hollywood Screenwriter

The first thing you should do before seeing David Fincher’s Mank is re-watch (or watch for the first time, you cinema philistine) 1941’s Citizen Kane and maybe even do a little research on its production history. To be clear, Mank is in no way a movie about the making of Citizen Kane (if you want that, I suggest the made-for-HBO film RKO 281 from 1999, starring John Malkovich as screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and Liev Schreiber as director Orson Welles). Blessedly, what Mank is instead is a look at the gruelingly painful process that Mankiewicz (played by Gary Oldman) went through to get the first draft of that film written in only a couple of months, pulling from his own life and relationships with such cultural icons as newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), and actress and Hearst’s romantic partner Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried).

Mank

Image courtesy of Netflix

Meant to look and sound like a film made in the period in which it takes place (black-and-white, period sound-recording technology and special effects), Mank is told from the screenwriter’s point-of-view as he isolates himself with a broken leg at a ranch in the Mojave Desert. He’s given a dutiful assistant, Rita Alexander (Lily Collins), a German nurse (Monika Gossmann), and a great deal of alcohol in order to meet Welles’ deadline (which starts at 90 days and shifts to 60). In exchange, Mank (as his friends call him) agrees to receive no screenwriting credit—something he changes his mind about. The two end up sharing credit, eventually winning the Academy Award for Best Screenplay, the film’s only win. Welles (Tom Burke) isn’t much of a presence in the film. Occasionally, Mankiewicz receives a phone call from the director or a concerned message through Welles’ liaison, actor John Houseman (Sam Troughton), but again, the film isn’t really about Citizen Kane as much as it’s about a tour of Mankiewicz’s last days in Hollywood, after producing dozens of screenplays (some uncredited) featuring his snappy, sharp, often brutally funny dialogue.

In retrospect, Citizen Kane feels like an exit interview for Mankiewicz as he fell out of favor with Hollywood and the studio system. The screenplay for Mank is credited to Fincher’s father Jack Fincher, who died in 2003. David Fincher (Gone Girl, The Social Network, Fight Club, Seven) was attempting to get this film made years ago (sometime after he made The Game), and now he’s finally getting the chance to fulfill his father’s dream, so a great deal about the movie feels personal. Due in large part to the way Fincher portrays the many relationships in Mankiewicz’s life, the emotions of each lost friendship or partnership feel grippingly honest and painful. The deep friendship he shares with Marion Davies (who was mistakingly perceived as the character of the talent-free singer Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane) made him a favorite of Hearst, both as a conversationalist and distraction for Davies when Hearst was frequently busy.

Although not entirely necessary, having a working knowledge of Hollywood history of the 1930s-40s helps one appreciate Mank all the more, especially when actors portraying such luminaries as Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Irving Thalberg, David O. Selznick, and Greta Garbo show up and aren’t introduced. There’s a rich appreciation about the way movies used to be made, in terms of technical achievements and the factory-like precision in which they were churned out (after input from every department) in the name of making it a hit. Which is why Mankiewicz’s isolation was so unique; he wasn’t taking notes from anyone, not even Welles, who appreciated the writer’s talents but also took advantage of his desperation to work again, even without credit. To a degree, the Kane screenplay was Mankiewicz purging his mind of a life that he had left behind because he had had enough of his carousing and embarrassing behavior, and the vitriol was palpable.

With a dreamy score from regular Fincher collaborators Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Mank works best as a showcase for Oldman, who wlli easily be a front-runner come awards season (actually, maybe we’re already in awards season; who can tell any more?). Even when confined to a bed, he’s a formidable son of a bitch who knows exactly how drunk he needs to be to function without falling asleep. The attempts by those around him to curb his drinking are admirable but pointless, and Oldman’s high-wire act of playing drunk but still being skillfully acerbic is just as impressive.

The only thing that sometimes overshadows Oldman’s work in Mank is Fincher’s technical prowess and visual references to Citizen Kane, which flow in ways that are quite deliberate and brought a smile of recognition to my face. From the haunting and crisp black-and-white photography (by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt) and hypnotic long takes to the monaural sound design and dead-on production design (by Donald Graham Burt), Mank is both a Hollywood tribute and an indictment of the studio system that left writers like Mankiewicz in the dust. I wish the film had included more about the screenwriter’s clashes with Welles, but again, that story has been told and isn’t the point of this film, which uses flashbacks to establish a series of moments from Mankiewicz’s recent past that show us how he got to this place in his life.

The one thing I never got hung up on was how faithful to reality Mank actually is; I genuinely don’t care. This isn’t a documentary, so the filmmakers can take whatever liberties they like, and I can choose to find them authentic or not; whether they stick to the facts doesn’t really concern me—like Mankiewicz, I like a good story, regardless. I loved the way word about the screenplay’s connection to Hearst somehow gets out, and a steady stream of visitors (including Mank’s brother Joe (Tom Pelphrey) come to see him at the ranch to find out just how venomous the script is and whether they can talk him out of writing it.

There are some flashback storylines involving the 1934 California gubernatorial election that I didn’t engage with much, but they do show how Mankiewicz began to disconnect from his Hollywood studio relationships over time. Mank is one of those curious works that doesn’t ask us to like its lead character, but seems desperate for us to understand him. As memorable as some of Mank’s meltdowns are, the best scenes involve our protagonist simply talking to people, whether the typist played by Collins or Seyfried’s Davies. It’s in those moments when Mankiewicz’s heart shines through and we’re able to appreciate the version of him that charmed countless people, even if he clearly believed he was always the smartest person in the room.

The film opens theatrically in Chicago at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema on Friday, November 13; it begins streaming on Netflix December 4. Please follow venue, state and CDC health and safety guidelines if attending indoor screenings.

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