by Will Johnson
“Mank” follows the eponymous screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, played by Gary Oldman, as he rushes to finish writing “Citizen Kane” in only 60 days. However, “Mank” is not just a movie about a movie. Director David Fincher is far more interested in Mankiewicz’s complex life as an alcoholic, washed-up writer who speaks his mind too often, only to hurt himself and those around him.
Fincher took obvious care to ensure that the film displayed the same look and feel as “Citizen Kane” by shooting in black and white and by mimicking techniques like structure and cinematography. “Mank” utilizes a similar non-linear narrative which follows Mankiewicz writing for Orson Welles in 1940 while his life unfolds in a series of flashbacks taking place between 1930 and 1937. This is instantly recognizable as the same structure that “Citizen Kane” used where Charles Foster Kane dies in the opening scene, but his life is explored through flashbacks. By paralleling the structure, “Mank” provides an intimate and thought-provoking look into the way that reality influences film.
“Mank” is overflowing with style that all works beautifully to display its setting in the Golden Age of Hollywood and screenwriting aesthetic. Flashbacks are shown as scene headings, giving a unique spin to the often bland use of on-screen text. Fincher never wants the audience to forget that screenwriting is at the heart of this film, and creative decisions like this allow for the visuals and story to seamlessly blend together. Also, through extreme attention to detail in the costuming, music, and set design, “Mank” serves as a wonderful ode to the Golden Age of Hollywood without ever glorifying the time period. Characters like Louis B. Mayer and Irving Thalberg are shown in an appropriately complicated light and their treatment of lower-level employees at the studios are boldly captured. Similarly, mentions of Nazism, anti-Semitism, and Hitler remind the audience that the era was not as glamorous as many films at the time made it appear.
Additionally, “Mank” handles the politics in the film studios at the time phenomenally. The audience sees the magic of movies through scenes taking place in writers’ rooms, on sound stages, and on sets, but “Mank” is also unafraid to show the darker side of Hollywood. Laborers take pay cuts while the wealthy studio heads party at mansions and executives forget their ethics to achieve their selfish goals. These ideas are best shown through the use of Upton Sinclair and the 1934 California gubernatorial election. This incredible plotline allowed Mankiewicz’s hidden noble nature to be seen while also exploring the façade of Hollywood in the 1930s and 1940s.
The performances are a major highlight of “Mank,” most notably with Gary Oldman, who is perfectly cast in the lead role. Supporting actress Amanda Seyfried shines as Marion Davies and is successful in separating the real figure from Susan Alexander Kane, who has too often overshadowed her legacy. Even a minor role like Charles Dance as William Randolph Hearst becomes memorable within the short screen time that he is given. One monologue delivered by Dance at a dinner party near the end of the film is a haunting scene that emphasizes how powerfully the actors and actresses take over the screen. Even though only a few key performances are mentioned here, there are no actors that are noticeably weak, making the casting one of the strengths of this film.
However, despite all of the accomplishments of the film, “Mank” feels like it too often relies on the influence of “Citizen Kane” in order to work thematically. The latter tells the story of a man whose life is too complex to be summarized by just one word. “Mank” clearly wants to deliver a similar theme, going so far as openly acknowledging the inability to capture a person’s life in only two hours. Yet references such as this, or discussing the issues with telling a non-linear story, come too early within the film to feel impactful. It seems as if the writers are using the viewers’ understanding of “Citizen Kane” to deliver major themes before putting in the actual work. This does not mean that “Mank” fails in accomplishing its themes, only that it would not have been as successful without its comparisons to that movie.
Another major issue is the way “Mank” structures its scenes. The writers want to portray Mankiewicz as a complex character who can never truly be understood, but this is not as powerful as intended due to a lack of diversification in the scenes. Flashbacks consist mainly of Mankiewicz having drunken outbursts that anger the powerful figures who employ him. Yet these scenes begin to feel tired and overdone by the end of the film. There are some scenes that attempt to shine a different light on Mankiewicz through his attempts at preventing suicide or fighting against a smear campaign, but it all feels too altruistic to be effective. Another issue with repetition lies in the manner in which Mankiewicz is written. His dialogue mainly consists of snide, yet genius comments delivered at the expense of those around him. Unfortunately, that veil is almost never lifted, giving the viewer too few instances of a genuine Mankiewicz, rather than the one who hides behind his enormous intellect.
The writers also seemed to be slightly confused on what kind of movie they wanted to make. It clearly explores Mankiewicz’s life more so than a behind-the-scenes look at “Citizen Kane.” But by only showing the parts of his life that inspired his writing of that movie, it feels like it lands someone in between a biopic and a movie about a movie without ever truly being either. On top of that, the demographic of this film is unclear. Real-life figures and historical events have very little contextualization requiring a significant amount of background knowledge on the audience’s part in order to completely appreciate this movie. By needing an intense understanding of the studio landscape at the time and all of the key figures, “Mank” becomes a difficult film to recommend.
Overall, “Mank” is a powerful and moving film that explores a troubled yet influential figure and the dark, frequently unseen side of early Hollywood. It effectively captures the era through stylistic decisions and extreme attention to detail. Yet “Mank” willingly chooses to intertwine itself with “Citizen Kane” which occasionally hurts the film. Its mimicking of structure and themes are emotionally moving, but make it feel as if “Mank” is destined to be nothing more than a companion film to “Citizen Kane.”