Orson Welles’ CITIZEN KANE (1941) is often cited by critics and film historians as the greatest movie ever made. For me, it’s a movie I’ve always appreciated but just have never really loved. It’s a film that in spite of its innovative attributes simply has never reached out and grabbed me.
I kinda feel the same way about today’s movie MANK (2020), an ambitious film by director David Fincher which stars Gary Oldman as Herman Mankiewicz, the alcoholic screenwriter who penned the ahead-of-its-time screenplay for CITIZEN KANE. I appreciated its attributes, but I can’t say I enjoyed it all that much. In a nutshell, I found most of its 131 minutes rather dull even while I appreciated the fine acting, storytelling, and black and white photography.
MANK, a new Netflix original movie, tells the story of Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) who when the movie opens has just broken his leg in a car accident. He’s been tasked by the young hotshot filmmaker Orson Welles (Tom Burke) to write the screenplay for his next movie, and Welles gives him just two months to do it. Welles sets up Mank in a room with a personal nurse Fraulein Frieda (Monika Gossmann) and a typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who will type the script from Mank’s notes and dictation. And of course, no alcohol.
The script Mank sets out to write is based on the newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst, and just as CITIZEN KANE tells its story through flashbacks, MANK does the same, and so through these flashbacks we learn of Mank’s relationship with William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young actress lover Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who Mank develops a close friendship with. The story is a complicated one, covering the cutthroat studio politics of the time, as well as government politics, as studio head Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) backs the Republican candidate for governor in 1934 and even produces a fake “newsreel” movie which blatantly labels the Democatric candidate, Upton Sinclair (Bill Nye) (Um, yes, the Science Guy!) as a socialist, under whose leadership immigrants will invade the state! Where have I heard that before? The more things change….
Once the script is finished, those closest to Mank beg him not to follow through, warning him that he shouldn’t cross William Randolph Hearst, while Marion asks him not to betray a friendship. Of course, Mank doesn’t take their advice, and the rest is history.
MANK is filled with impressive performances, starting at the top with Gary Oldman as Mank. I could watch Oldman act all day, and while his performance here is not as atonishing as his portrayal of Winston Churchill in DARKEST HOUR (2017), it’s still pretty darn good. I’ll do one better, it’s really good! Mank clearly has a drinking problem and when he’s drunk his sharp writer’s mind is even more cutting and he says things which offend and hurt, even while being true. It doesn’t win him many friends, except, ironically, William Randolph Hearst, who seems to enjoy Mank’s insights, so much so that it’s later revealed that Hearst paid Mank’s salary at the studio. Oldman convincingly captures this alcoholic behavior, and he does it while keeping Mank a sympathetic character. In spite of his sharp tongue, he doesn’t come off as a jerk, but as someone who refuses to remain silent when in the company of hypocrisy. The main reason to watch MANK is the performance of Gary Oldman.
Both Amanda Seyfried and Charles Dance make the most of their limited screen time, and I wish both these performers had been in the movie more. Seyfried gets to show off her acting talents as the sassy Marion Davies. It’s a much more satisfying role than the last time we saw her, in the disappointing thriller YOU SHOULD HAVE LEFT (2020) in which she co-starred with Kevin Bacon. Of course, we’ve seen Seyfried do this before, lose herself in the part and completely become the character, as she did with her performance as Linda Lovelace in the superior movie LOVELACE (2013). I like Seyfried a lot, and I’ve enjoyed nearly every movie she has made.
Charles Dance, who starred in David Fincher’s ill-fated ALIEN 3 (1992) way back when, is authoritative, cool, and powerful as William Randolph Hearst. Dance is one of those actors who I’ve enjoyed more the older he gets! He stood out in a supporting role in THE IMITATION GAME (2014), and his master vampire was the best part of the underwhelming DRACULA UNTOLD (2014).
Also making a notable impression and with more screen time is Lily Collins as Rita Alexander, the woman who types the script and develops a friendship with Mank. Collins gets lots of screen time with Gary Oldman, and they’re very good together.
Other notable performances include Tom Pelphrey as Mank’s brother Joseph, Arliss Howard as Louis B. Mayer, Tuppence Middleton as Mank’s wife Sara, and Tom Burke as Orson Welles, just to name a few.
David Fincher uses black and white photography and captures the look of 1930s-40s Hollywood movies. He also mirrors the style of CITIZEN KANE, using flashbacks and jumping back and forth in time, something today’s audiences are use to, but 1940s audiences were not, and so for Mank, his screenplay was unusual and ahead of its time.
The screenplay by Jack Fincher, David Fincher’s father, who passed away in 2003, contains both hits and misses. The hits include the sharp tongues of Mank and his fellow Hollywood screenwriters. Their dialogue contains some real zingers, most of which come from Mank. Also, strangely, since this was written back in the 1990s, the script speaks to the political climate of today, touching upon such issues as the demonization of socialism and the notion that one can promote lies as truth simply by repeating the lies over and over, something that Mank balks at.
Where the screenplay misses is with emotion. As much as I appreciated the acting performances and the technical aspects to this one, the story never moved me. It remained flat throughout. And I think part of this is the screenplay focuses so meticulously on Mank’s motives for writing his CITIZEN KANE screenplay it forgets to give the viewer a reason for enjoying this one. In short, it tells more than it shows.
Yet, director David Fincher does fill this one with cinematic images, meant to call to mind similar images from CITIZEN KANE, and there are lots of memorable lines and anecdotes, like the one on the rumor of what the classic line “Rosebud” means. But emotionally MANK still falls flat. The characters, as well acted as they are, somehow never become truly fleshed out, truly like real people.
Perhaps its because the folks in Hollywood in the 1930s-40 weren’t acting like real people. Perhaps they were simply more concerned with the business of making movies to care about anything else. There’s certainly a line in MANK which speaks to this, when Mank begs Marion to go back and tell Louis Mayer not to release his propaganda movie against Upton Sinclair. She tells him she can’t go back…. because she has already made her exit. To which Mank, upon leaving her, bursts out laughing.
MANK is a movie definitely worth checking out, both for film history purposes and film appreciation, as its strong cast is led by Gary Oldman, who delivers an exceptional performance, and it’s got a veteran and talented director at the helm, David Fincher.
You just might not enjoy it all that much.