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Review: Mank (2020)

Mank (2020)

Directed by: David Fincher

Premise: In 1940s Hollywood, screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) retreats to a bungalow to write the script for Citizen Kane. He bases the protagonist of his story on newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

What Works: Mank tells a speculative fiction set in classic Hollywood while adopting the style of films produced at that time. The imagery is black and white, the sound is mixed to resemble an analog presentation, scenes end with fade outs, and the picture even includes changeover cues. The sets and costumes look organically of their time; this recreation of the 1930s and 1940s looks authentic, as though it is a place where its characters live and breathe rather than the artificiality of a movie set. The script by Jack Fincher is dialogue heavy and witty in the style of popular films of the era like His Girl Friday and The Philadelphia Story. Mank also repurposes the nonlinear narrative structure of Citizen Kane, one of that film’s major innovations, and uses it to reveal Herman Mankiewicz’s motives for writing the script and picking a fight with William Randolph Hearst. This backstory, although highly fictional, highlights an important detail about Citizen Kane; Orson Welles’ classic is many things and among them it was a political film about the power of media and how that power is wielded by oligarchs. That’s dramatized in Mank as newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer use the resources at their disposal to smear Upton Sinclair in his 1934 run for Governor of California. Mank also includes a few exceptional performances, namely Gary Oldman as Mankiewicz. As depicted in the film, Mankiewicz was a brilliant writer but he also suffered from alcoholism and was a compulsive gambler and he wrestled with guilt and anger over the political machinations of Hearst and Mayer. Also notable are Lily Collins as Mankiewicz’s secretary Rita Alexander and Amanda Seyfried as Marion Davies, a would-be actress and wife of William Randolph Hearst. Collins is an effective foil to Oldman and Seyfried gives her character the quiet desperation as a woman who is better and smarter than her lot in life.

What Doesn’t: Mank doesn’t include much exposition and it may not play so well for viewers who aren’t familiar with Hollywood’s golden era and don’t know who William Randolph Hearst and Louis B. Mayer were. The sound design of Mank, as it’s presented on Netflix, may not play well on home sound systems. The dialogue is frequently muddled which makes this very talky film challenging to follow. Mank also suffers from its lack of emotional engagement. The movie has moments that land quite powerfully but on the whole Mank comes across dramatically flat. It isn’t really building up to anything and in the end the picture just seems to stop rather than reaching a conclusion.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Mank has impressive technical craft as well as a few strong performances and it will be interesting to fans of Citizen Kane and viewers who are familiar with classic Hollywood. But Mank lacks emotional impact or a narrative structure that leads us to a Rosebud moment.

Episode: #830 (December 13, 2020)