Mank review: a visual treat but a dramatic mess

George Cochrane reviews the latest Netflix release

George Cochrane
7th December 2020
David Fincher’s portrait of Citizen Kane co-writer, Herman J. Mankiewicz, is a visual treat but a dramatic mess.

The theory that Mankiewicz, or ‘Mank’, was the primary author of Kane’s screenplay has been hotly contested since the film’s release back in 1941. The consensus now is that he wasn’t, but that doesn’t make the theory any less tantalising and I by no means hold the counterfactual element of Fincher’s film against it. It’s a good story.

Image credit: IMDb

Like Kane, Mank jumps back and forth through the years, but its present moment is 1940. At this point, Mank (Gary Oldman) is at his lowest ebb: overweight, middle-aged, drinking too much, a pariah in Hollywood and, to top it all, bedridden with a broken leg.

This last woe might just also be his saving grace. Wunderkind Orson Welles (Tom Burke) has received a carte-blanche contract to make his first film and he wants Mank to write it. Immobilised and convalescing under the watchful eye of his secretary, Rita (Lily Collins), Mank will surely have nothing to distract him from the task in hand – surely.

Whatever precautions Rita takes, though, Mank always manages to get booze somehow and his drinking puts him behind schedule as his sixty-day deadline nears. Moreover, as Mank dictates his screenplay to Rita, it quickly becomes apparent that the characters he has created are very thinly-veiled versions of media mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) and his young mistress, Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) – both friends of Mank.

Image credit: IMDb

Given that Hearst is Hollywood’s most generous patron, it’s hardly the wisest career move for Mank to expose him, and our man is constantly dissuaded from his theme. But as the film’s frequent flashbacks reveal, Mank has his reasons for wanting to tell this story and is not to be deterred.

Therein lies one of the main problems with Mank: its structure. Whereas Kane’s flashbacks are seamless and organic, here they are clunky, seemingly just a way to escape the dramatic cul-de-sac of a bed-bound protagonist. Signposting these flashbacks with the word ‘flashback’ doesn’t help, either. It’s clear they are in the past because his leg’s not broken! When we do have to be in the present, Mank’s immobility does indeed cause problems, with scenes becoming overly talky and theatrical and Oldman’s physical bulk not having the same impact it does when he is up and about.

Image Credit: IMDb

Beyond its structure, though, Mank does not really resemble Citizen Kane at all and the two ought not to be compared. It’s a totally different film, closer to Sunset Boulevard (1950) and Barton Fink (1991) in the way it presents the venality and madness of the movie industry. But the film isn’t only trying to satirise; it also, variously, tries to be a screwball comedy, a noir, a melodrama, without ever quite managing to be any of these things. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ music, though terrific on a track-by-track basis, is similarly mercurial, evoking at different points Bernard Herrmann’s moody score for Kane, the ebullient big-band sound of Glenn Miller, the paranoia of a David Shire score and the serenity of Nino Rota’s famous Amarcord (1973) theme.

For a film about the writing of a movie, it is just a shame that Mank’s writing does not live up to its direction.

What is consistent is the look of the film. Shot in sumptuous black-and-white by cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt and directed with the pitch-perfect precision we have come to expect of Fincher, it really is gorgeous, full of searing, memorable imagery. Board meetings have never looked so beautiful! The rich period detail – costumes, cars, radios, projectors – all add to this and meant that, whenever the story lost my attention, I always had something else to occupy my eye. The cast, too, suit the period: Oldman is fittingly seedy and Seyfried, the standout for me, looks every bit the B-grade Hollywood starlet.

For a film about the writing of a movie, it is just a shame that Mank’s writing does not live up to its direction. I can understand why Fincher wanted it all in – the screenplay was the passion project of his late father, Jack – but, as The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) proved, time-muddled narratives are not his forte and the script ought to have undergone stricter editing. Then, perhaps, we might have been able to talk about Mank in the same breath as Citizen Kane.  

Image credit: IMDb

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