Mank (2020) Dec 15, 2020 20:57:33 GMT -5
Post by StevePulaski on Dec 15, 2020 20:57:33 GMT -5
Directed by: David Fincher
Directed by: David Fincher
Gary Oldman is Herman J. Mankiewicz in Mank.
"You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours," Herman J. Mankiewicz asserts to his collaborator Orson Welles relatively early into Mank. "All you can hope is to leave the impression of one."
He has a point, both broadly and as it applies to David Fincher's first film in six years. Biopics that attempt to be comprehensive in encapsulating the noteworthy events in a person's life ordinarily fail to penetrate deeper and uncover that person's motivations. Biopics that attempt to be more impressionistic and too intently focused on the person can feel like an empty candy-wrapper. The balance is difficult to find and discern, and I'm not sure you'll come away from Mank with a concrete understanding of who Herman J. Mankiewicz truly was. Yet Fincher achieves both a technical marvel and a compelling illustration of the characters and backdrop behind "the greatest movie ever made."
That film is Orson Welles' Citizen Kane, on which Mankiewicz is credited as cowriter alongside Welles. In its dialog-driven, artfully orchestrated presentation, Mank looks to capture the essence of the brilliant but haunted mind of Mankiewicz, a uniquely gifted writer whose biting, satirical dialog and elaborate story-structures became staples of American filmmaking in the 1930s. It largely excels, although much like its subject, in spite of itself.
The film opens to find Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman in another chameleon role) lying bedridden at a remote ranch accompanied by his secretary Rita (Lily Collins), who dictates what would become the script for Citizen Kane. Mank is fulfilling a contractual obligation with Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, working through a presumably never-ending string of hangovers, agonizing pain brought on by his leg injury, and his own instability in order to put metaphorical pen-to-paper. Rita and Mercury's producer John Houseman (Sam Troughton) are his companions, as well as a crate of Seconal, gifted to Mank by Welles to be a treat for him at the end of a long evening.
Fincher's film — working off a screenplay written by his late father, Jack — shuffles us through time as the incapacitated writer harkens back to a plethora of relationships he's maintained over the course of his career. Most notable is the one with Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), the animated head of MGM studios who once bestowed a piece of advice regarding filmmaking he hasn't forgotten: “All he [the viewer] has is the memories. What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it. That’s the real magic of the movies and don’t let anybody tell you different."
Mayer's musing provides the film with one of its many keen observations about Old Hollywood (and likely present Hollywood) in which those who hold the most power take the least amount of pride in their work. Nobody we meet over the course of the film seems to be happy with the movie business nor the politics encroaching on their industry. The exception is maybe the starry-eyed darling Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), a bonafide sensation whom media magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) is fixing to coach into becoming a more dramatic actress. Marion also cutely says the ascending German figure Adolf Hitler is "creepers."
Mayer and Heart's strong personalities and politics would aid in becoming the basis for Charles Foster Kane, as the two conspire to bring a bitter end to the 1934 gubernatorial campaign of Upton Sinclair. Sinclair — the muckraking author famous for The Jungle, a novel about the exploited labor of immigrants in manufacturing industries — would attempt to galvanize a base of disenfranchised workers by running a socialist platform on the Democratic ticket, a move that unsurprisingly unnerves Hollywood's fattest cats.
Modeling his ambitious screenplay after Hearst puts Mank in the precarious position of being completely ostracized not solely by the powerful media mogul, but by Hollywood as an institution. What does Mank care? He's already down-and-out in the world's eyes, kept alive by the promise his new screenplay will be his best yet and the blank pages staring back at him. As James Baldwin once eloquently articulated, to paraphrase, there's nothing more dangerous society can produce than a man with nothing to lose.
From the dreamy black and white photography to the blink-and-you-miss-it-circles that appear infrequently at the top-right corner of the screen to signify reel changes (which were given extra time/explanation in Fincher's Fight Club), Mank is an impeccable stylistic marvel. Its widescreen presentation echoes not the "letterboxed" format of the time but that of CinemaScope, introduced in 1953. The black and white visuals are not inky, as if to callback to film noir, but rather lucid, almost cloudy in their presentation. It casts a shadowy, ominous hue over the likes of Mayer and Hearst while making Davies appear as pure as porcelain.
Mank's appearance can be credited to Fincher, cinematographer Erik Messerschmidt, editor Kirk Baxter, production designer Donald Graham Burt, sound supervisor Ren Klyce, and many others who probably won't receive the credit they so deserve. This is a talky picture, but at times, you're inclined to set back and absorb the beauty of it all. If there were ever a beautiful film made about ugly characters, Fincher has made it.
When it comes to the dialog, Fincher and his late father exhibit a tone of playfulness. Conversations are unrealistically eloquent, and race by so fast you're grateful for the privilege of rewinding in case you missed the wit. Perhaps a bit too much of this is bestowed upon Mank, who has a quip for every occasion and a dash of humor almost too perfect to believe. But there's fun in moments such as Mank pitching a Frankenstein knockoff to an unamused David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and Josef Von Stenberg (Paul Fox), a treasure of a filmmaker known for Morocco and Shanghai Express at the time. Continuing on the idea of Mank being a gaggle of impressions on a fabled figure of the era, we see a drunken, luckless screenwriter having difficultly scrounging up new ideas on the fly versus one who is entirely in his own element when he's isolated with a bottle of bourbon.
Mank reminds you, if indirectly, what a gamble Citizen Kane was for its time. It was a film that had Welles, at 25-years-old, possessing total control right up to final cut privileges over this pet-project. Mankiewicz's screenplay was anything but linear. What transpired was an unforeseen technical and narrative achievement that still garners immense praise and adoration some 80 years later.
Much like Mank, it was a collection of narrative fragments that left an essence of a mogul's opulent rise and lonely fall, right up until he dropped that snowglobe and uttered that fateful word. Thanks to Pauline Kael, much has been made about the idea of who actually penned Citizen Kane. The scene of Mank requesting a screenwriting credit from Orson Welles (Tom Burke) is played for dramatic effect, but it works because the film has kept Welles at such a distance from the audience throughout the picture. The gravitas of his presence is only elevated by the screaming match that ensues.
It's a real shocker this exhaustively talky, black-and-white picture only spent one day in the top ten most watched items on the American Netflix, I say with the utmost sarcasm. Your mileage of Old Hollywood in-jokes, era-specific politics, and brilliant alcoholics will absolutely vary with this one. At times, it's alienating as it's layered in references liable to wash over you unless you're well-read on the politics and cinema of the era. Moreover, its aesthetics are gorgeous, as are its insights to screenwriting, and furthermore stands as another bold showcase of Gary Oldman in a role with no blueprint.
At one point, Mank claims that Citizen Kane, in structure, is a movie that is circular, like a cinnamon roll; it's not written in the format of a straight-line narrative that leads to a distinct ending. While Mank ultimately does, it spins a web of cynicism married to decadence and passion untethered from frustration — an ultimate compliment unto itself.
NOTE: Mank is now available to stream on Netflix.
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Charles Dance, Tom Burke, Sam Troughton, Toby Leonard Moore, and Paul Fox. Directed by: David Fincher.