Mank Review : 𝐀 𝐒𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐢𝐧𝐠 𝐆𝐥𝐚𝐧𝐜𝐞 𝐚𝐭 𝐚 𝐒𝐡𝐚𝐤𝐞𝐬𝐩𝐞𝐚𝐫𝐞𝐚𝐧 𝐇𝐞𝐫𝐨 𝐢𝐧 𝐇𝐨𝐥𝐥𝐲𝐰𝐨𝐨𝐝.
Mank is a lot of things, but at its core it is a character study of a man who felt out-of-place, and voiceless, even as he worked on not only the best work of his life, but one of the most celebrated films of Hollywood. And yet, the film is little about Citizen Kane, and even lesser about Orson Welles, the man who controversially shared the screenplay credits of the film with Herman J. Mankiewicz (for which they won an Academy Award).
Mank follows a desolate, alcoholic Mankiewicz as he is given a stern time limit by Welles to complete the screenplay of Citizen Kane. But the film, though, captures a lot more than that. It encapsulates the essence of Hollywood in 1930’s, and 40’s, much like how Quentin Tarantino’s directorial Once Upon A Time in Hollywood captured the late 60’s, last year. Like that film, the pace of Mank is languid, almost reflective. David Fincher looks at the real life figures of Hollywood with a toughened gaze. This is not a nostalgic piece (which was the case with Tarantino’s film last year); neither is this an emotional ode to the script Fincher’s father wrote before he passed away in 2003; instead, Fincher simply looks at these characters as a chaotic, unreliable preamble to the mad genius of Mankiewicz, which is the only way one can explain the cross-genre brilliance of Citizen Kane.
Fincher, however, is not making a documentary here. He is making a biopic, and there is a visible lack of authenticity in the name of creative freedom. But what makes Mank special is its will, and eventual success to get the essence of Mankviewicz, and the era he belonged to, right. In doing that, the film gives us an obsessive, irrational protagonist who fights for his part of the land in Hollywood, eventually acutely aware that he has written his best work in Citizen Kane, and the slow, dreadful realization, that like Dr. Faustus, the price of this brilliance is locked in the disappeared presence of his brilliance on the credits of the film.
Written by Jack Fincher, the film documents incidents from Mankviewicz’s life from late 20’s to late 30’s, while setting the “present” of the film in 1940. Fincher’s screenplay explores the inspirations behind different characters in Citizen Kane, while also looking at the growing isolation Mankviewicz felt through those years, isolated politically, socially, and ideologically from the corrupt names who run the business.
Fincher does not depict his protagonist as a particularly likable man. Instead, he looks at him pitifully. A man who is at once arrogant and vulnerable, and in a grave misinformation of how the world works. He is passionate, but is not very good at giving structure his passion, and prose. Which becomes his greatest demerit, and also the very thing that makes Citizen Kane the towering film it went on to become.
In one of the best scenes of the film Mankviewicz shares the idea of his new story to the big shots of Hollywood, drunk. He speaks, rambles, almost making bits of the plot points on the spot, in a state of such inebriation that at one point he goes and tries to light his cigarette from a thundering fireplace. His listeners do not take him seriously, but as viewers we see that this is the first signs of the film that Citizen Kane was. As he nears the end of his narration, Mankviewicz vomits all the food, and alcohol he consumes. It is a picture of disdain, and disgust, and yet, a moment when Mankviewicz has come up with something extraordinary.
Another scene quite late in the film involving an argument between Mankviewicz, and Welles (Tom Burke) touches upon the controversy of writing credits of Citizen Kane, briefly. Having lost himself to alcohol, and an unflinching nature that often displeased the big names, Mankviewicz’s biggest struggle is to be credited for the work he did.
It is here that Gary Oldman’s performance comes full circle. He plays Mankviewicz as someone who has never cared about success the way many around him do. And yet, at his heart, he is an artist who realizes that he has written something special — something extraordinary. It is then that he demands for credit. He wants to own this piece of work like he has not wanted to own anything else in the past. And yet, the best he gets is a sharing credit. One, that after having seen him struggle with alcohol, neglect, and even his own arrogance, feels compromised.
Oldman is brilliant here, giving Mankviewicz the physicality of a Shakespearean tragic hero, bound to be lost in the glitz of Hollywood, for a blend of his flaws, and a corrupt, money-minting industry. Citizen Kane, then, is simply the final attempt by him to leave a mark on the industry. His way of telling the world that he is more than his worst, self-destructive self. That he is an artist before anything else.
In Mank, David Fincher gives a fitting tribute to the man, and his need to own his one true masterpiece. In a selfless act that might even disappoint devout Fincher fans, Fincher almost cloaks himself here, letting his father’s script, and Oldman’s interpretation of the mercurial Mank take over his regular style of filmmaking, and turning this into a film that almost belongs to the era it is set in (in a good, positive way). And yet, it is Fincher’s ability to revel in the grey that makes this greater than a companion piece to the brilliance of Citizen Kane, and a nostalgic, sanitized gaze at what Hollywood was just after the Great Depression. It is somewhere in the middle of these two extremes. It is a film that tries to respect the grey, and the unlikable, while attempting to recognize and celebrate a man who is rarely remembered under the shadow of the fittingly celebrated Orson Welles. It is a tough rope to walk on, and Fincher does it with flamboyance, making Mank a memorable film, and one of Fincher’s most accomplished cinematic visions.
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