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Wednesday, December 09, 2020

Mank


Mank
is director David Fincher's first film in six years (his last being 2014's Gone Girl), and is quite frankly his most personal and ambitious.  On the personal side, the script was written by his late father, Jack Fincher, back in the 90s (the film is dedicated to his memory), and is one that the director has wanted to make for a while.  As for the ambitious, this is a full-blooded attempt to recreate the look of a lost 1940s black and white film, from the look to the sound design, and even right down to the "change reel" marks that have been added to the film.  It's something that will probably go over most viewers' heads, but the true cinema lovers watching will no doubt relish in.

Despite his attempts to recreate the look, sound and feel of classic Hollywood, this is surprisingly not an affectionate love letter to old movies.  Rather, he has decided to take a rather broad stab at exploring just how big of a role politics play in the movie business.  It's something that was true back in the 1940s, and is just as much so now.  This is also not a very flattering portrayal of some of the old Hollywood figures that play a part in this story.  These are powerful people, and they use that power to either get what they want, or crush those who are against them.  One of the key pleasures of the film is watching Fincher speculate about how movie mogul Louis B. Mayer, the head of MGM Studios (played here by Arliss Howard), used his influence in election campaigns and even helped create propaganda films to smear the opposing candidate.  This is a broad, far-reaching film that covers so many topics and characters that it can be a bit daunting in its first half hour.  But Fincher also makes sure that the audience is having fun while watching this, and never loses a certain devilish sense of humor.

At the center of it all is Gary Oldman, giving a loose and world-weary portrayal as Herman J. Mankiewicz, who as the film opens in 1940 is bedridden after a car accident, frequently drunk, and well past his prime of when he was a respected writer, drama critic, and Hollywood figure.  He has a wife named Sara (Tuppence Middleton), who has put up with a lot when it comes to her husband, and it shows, he's battling a lot of past demons concerning how he sent his life and career spiraling to the bottom, and he now has a 60 day deadline to write what could be the screenplay that will be the work that defines his life.  A 25-year-old Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has struck a deal with RKO Studios to make any movie he wants with complete creative freedom.  Welles and Mankiewicz ("Mank") have a history working together, and he has decided to hire him, perhaps against better judgement, to write for him.  

Knowing Herman's history of alcoholism and gambling, Welles hides his writer away in a ranch in California, which is "dry", so that Mank can focus on writing instead of drinking. (When he hears this, Mank tries to escape from his bed, despite his injured leg.) His only company during the sixty day writing process are a German housekeeper named Fraulein Freda (Monika Grossman), typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who will dictate the script as the writer dreams it up, and actor John Houseman (Sam Troughton), whose main purpose seems to be to keep the writer in line and on schedule.  The film that Herman eventually writes is the first draft for Citizen Kane, and even though the film is being advertised about how that film came to be and the rift that eventually grew between Welles and Mankiewicz over writing and story credit, this is only a small part of the overall narrative.  This is not so much a docudrama on the writing process, as it is a film about Hollywood during this time, and the role that Mankiewicz played.

Taking a time-hopping approach to its narrative, Mank shows us its protagonist both in his prime through numerous flashbacks, and his later years where his brother, writer-producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz (Tom Pelphrey), tries to persuade Herman to taking a safer project, rather than working on Welles' ambitious and possibly disastrous project that takes a sharp and critical look at the media mogul, William Randolph Hearst (played here by Charles Dance).  The flashbacks looking at Herman's career in Hollywood slowly unravels the reason why he wanted to write this script in the first place.  This is where the real drama of the story comes from, as Herman Mankiewicz finds himself at the mercy of powerful people, fighting against them, and ultimately realizing that he is in a position where he will never win.  This is what leads to a lot of his alcoholism and personal demons.  He sees close friends chewed up and spit out by the politics that run the Hollywood machine, and he sees how it can destroy him as well.  

The time of the 1930s in Hollywood was one of financial depression for most of America, talk of chaos in Germany as the charismatic and dangerous Hitler was rising to power, and powerful studio people like Louis B. Mayer teaming up with Hearst to pull the strings of politics into the direction that they wanted it to go.  As Herman becomes entangled within all of this, he can see what's coming, but he quickly realizes that he is but a small voice in a very loud and angry machine.  We learn of his ties to actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), who is one of the few Hollywood figures from the time period who comes across in a positive light.  Despite the sprawling nature of the film's narrative, Mank is quite often quick paced, can occasionally have a sense of humor to itself, and never gets too bogged down in the details.  I have heard some accuse this of being a cold and unemotional film, but I think that's far from the truth.  I greatly cared about Herman, and how the movie kept on stacking the odds against him as he tried to make it in Hollywood.  This is not an angry or nasty film in the slightest.  It is a story of a man struggling to rise above what he sees going on in the industry.  He may get defeated, but he is never completely down, as evidenced by his actions toward helping his housekeeper that we learn about at one point.

It is true that a lot of the screenplay is made up out of speculation.  The idea that Orson Welles did not deserve sole credit for Citizen Kane dates back to film critic Pauline Kael's 1971 article, Raising Kane, which questioned just how much input he had on the script.  Everyone in the industry and the film fan community seems to have a different view on this subject, so it's perhaps for the best that the making of that seminal film is not the central focus here, but rather a glimpse into the life of Mankiewicz, and what led him to want to write a film that was a thinly-veiled jab at the real life Hearst.  In the end, Fincher has made a wildly entertaining film that asks a lot of "what ifs", and speculates about just what might have happened.  It covers a wide range of questions, gives us its explanation of what happened, and does so in a way that is easy to process, given how vast the film's reach is.  It shows us the power of the movies, its influence, and the behind the scenes influences that go into them.


Much like Martin Scorsese's The Irishman last year, this feels like Netflix gave David Fincher a chance to make the movie he has long wanted to make with few if any compromises.  It's certainly not a wide studio feature, as the subject matter only appeals to a small minority of the audience.  However, the filmmaker has made a movie that is all at once captivating, engaging, and spellbinding, even if you are not up on your Hollywood history.  Mank may not be the movie some are expecting, but it's a great one nonetheless. 

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