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Monday, December 14, 2020

Movie Review: Mank

Mank is the story of Herman J. Mankiewicz (aka Mank, played by Gary Oldman) as he reflects upon the incidents of his life inside the Hollywood studio system and his interactions with newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance) to write what became the 1941 classic Citizen Kane. Analogous to Citizen Kane, there is a present storyline of his time cooped up in a bed writing the film intercut with flashbacks of his time in the 1930's working at MGM with real life studio big wigs Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kinglsey). As the main plot points of Citizen Kane are its titular character attempting to run for Governor of California and being thwarted at the last moment when his opponent runs a smear campaign that Charles Foster Kane was having an affair with a "singer" and then Kane leaving his wife to marry said "singer", Mank tells the story of Louis B Mayer, as a proxy for Hearst, attempting to ensure Republican incumbent Frank Merriam defeats Democrat and "socialist" writer Upton Sinclair as Governor of California. Mank also shows the titular character's platonic relationship between Hearst's tryst, actress Marion Davies (played spectacularly by Amanda Seyfried) who is the inspiration for the "singer". 

Like all David Fincher films, the technical aspects of Mank are top notch. The creamy black-and-white cinematography to reflect Old Hollywood, the score that feels time period appropriate by frequent Fincher collaborators Atticus Ross and Trent Reznor, and the pitch perfect costume design and production design. The weakness in the film is its script, written by David Fincher's now decreased father Jack Fincher, in particular the story. The first time I saw the film, it felt empty. I felt so disconnected that it made me mad (and the hype of seeing a brand new David Fincher film didn't help either). But that being said, Mank lived rent free inside my head for so long that I give the film a second watch. I enjoyed it a lot more the second time around, and the second viewing helped because I was able to get invested in the story earlier because I knew where it was going. 

As Mank states at the beginning of the film, "You cannot capture a man's entire life in two hours" though the film does feel like it gives itself a pretty accurate portrait of the writer. He's charming AF and always witty with a joke, so much so that he engender's himself to William Randolph Hearst and gets invited to his fancy dinner parties. But Mank is also a habitual drinker and gambler and doesn't know when to shut up, which leads to his downfall. But it wasn't the portrait of the man that was the issue, and it certainly wasn't Gary Oldman's charismatic portrayal (though I could have gone without the slurred words when Mank was drunk as just a personal aesthetic), but both viewings left me wondering why David Fincher wanted to make this particular story.

The answer to that question is obvious- the script was personal to David because it was written by his father and he had wanted to make it for over 20 years. But very few details about the story screamed "this is a David Fincher picture!". Like all Fincher films, Mank is about power. Leftist Herman Mankiewicz fights the power against MGM studio's propaganda machine to help get Frank Merriam re-elected. However, so much of this story feels outwardly political and (unfortunately) prescient which works to the film's detriment. David Fincher does not care about politics. If he does personally, it's certainly not present in his work and does not shine through in Mank.  Much of Citizen Kane is outwardly political and prescient as well, it tells the story of a rich New York media mogul who uses populism he doesn't personally believe in to win a major election, so I understand why the storyline had to exist in the Netflix film. But when it's David Fincher as the main storyteller of it and when it so obviously feels like the director does not have a passion for it, it causes the audience to remain at an arm's length distance away. 

Mank goes further into the 2020 discourse as it produces literal fake news in the form of scripted scenes that feels like an actual newsreel and phony radio spots as well as its discussion of the rise of Nazis and fascism in Germany during the film's present day, and the rise of socialism in California via the Upton Sinclair campaign. The film also highlights the hypocrisy of big corporations decrying leftist politics and socialism while also demanding a labor force to work for heavily discounted rates. It's these issues where I can see another filmmaker nowadays wanting to make Mank in 2020, but I don't understand why David Fincher in particular wanted to make this film. David Fincher's collaborator Aaron Sorkin on 2010's The Social Network also released a film about politics this year, The Trial of the Chicago 7. It's a film about a trial after a leftist political protest from the late 1960's through the prism of 2020's sensibilities in a year notably marked by major protests. The film works in large part because of Aaron Sorkin's clear affinity and passion for politics, and it comes through in the film. The overtly political nature in Mank feels stilted and robotic seemingly due to David Fincher's lack of fervor of the subject matter.

While Mank discusses politics in a way that may not interest David Fincher, it shines a bright light on the old Hollywood studio system which David Fincher clearly hates. It's no secret how much disgust Fincher has for the Hollywood studio system after making his feature debut with Alien3, and I imagine that anger still lingers after none of them would make this passion project of his (the way he wanted to make it). While almost everyone calls Mank a Love Letter to Old Hollywood, it is actually a giant middle finger to it. The main antagonist of Mank is not William Randolph Hearst, it's Louis B. Mayer. Outside of his differing political views to Mank, this is a man who asked his entire labor force to cut their salaries in half, while refusing to do so himself, and promised to give the remainder back after eight weeks, only to renege after the time elapsed. The head of one of the leading major studios is presented as a giant asshole. Yet Mank doesn't dwell on the shittiness of the Hollywood system the way you'd expect Fincher would. It's certainly touched upon, but I think if Fincher had re-worked the script to make it a bigger point of the film, then I think it might have made it better because it would have allowed the director's passion to shine through and infect the audience. 

This leads me to the criticism of what Mank is not. While Jack Fincher started writing the script based upon Pauline Kael's shitty "take down" of Orson Welles and auteur theory in Raising Kane, David convinced his father to keep working at the script (Probably because as a man who famously doesn't write any of his movies, he wouldn't have made the movie that his Dad first wrote that shat all over directors). Mank is partially about Herman J Mankiewicz's fight to take ownership of what he feels is the greatest script he's ever written, but it's certainly not a take down the way Kael's original article was (and it's only a tiny part towards the end of the movie). Further, Fincher embraces collaboration with screenwriters. It's that famous collaboration and pushing back with Aaron Sorkin that made The Social Network a work of pure brilliance. That's why Mank states in the film, "I built him a watertight narrative and a suggested destination. Where he takes it, that's his job." David Fincher is giving the writer credit while also acknowledging that the director gets a crack at the nut. 

Additionally, Mank is not about the fight between William Randolph Hearst versus Orson Welles/RKO Studios and trying to bury/discredit Citizen Kane. While that may be an interesting story in its own right, nowhere does Mank claim to be that story. You can not criticize a story for what you wanted it to be, only for what it is. And Mank is the story of the life of Herman J Mankiewicz during his time as a Hollywood writer. 

Overall, I liked Mank, but it won't come close to cracking the top 10 as one of the best films of 2020, which is saying something considering how much of the pandemic limited movie releases and considering this is a David Fincher film. It also says something about a movie where you need to watch it twice in order to fully "get it". It only took me one viewing to fall in love with The Social Network or The Trial of the Chicago 7. It took me two viewings of Mank just to like it. So watch Mank, the barrier to entry is so low because it's currently streaming on Netflix, just know what you are getting yourself into.