‘Mank’ is an anti-love letter to old Hollywood

By Tomas Babicki |

Netflix | Wikimedia Commons

David Fincher’s deconstruction of the depression-stricken studio politics of 1930’s Hollywood delivers a convoluted narrative about a complicated figure. Between masterful performances and tender homage, Fincher strings together a thought-provoking account of the origin story behind Citizen Kane.

Shot in an atmospheric black and white film grain and mixed with the same crackling rasp of a golden age talkie, Mank follows Herman J. “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman); the screenwriter conscripted by Orson Welles (Tim Burke) to produce the script for his first feature, which would eventually become considered ‘the greatest film ever made’.

The film is composed of two interlacing timelines. The first is set in 1940 and sees Mank laid up in a rehabilitation facility in the California desert, where he is weaned off alcohol and squeezed under the pressure of a tight schedule imposed by both Welles and a producer from RKO Studios (Sam Troughton). This is interwoven with episodes from Mank’s career in the writers’ rooms of the Hollywood studio system, beginning in 1930. It is here that he is introduced to the eventual inspiration for the character behind Citizen Kane, billionaire magnate William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance).

Mank is a pleasure to view…

Any film which so sincerely and authentically evokes the golden age of Hollywood through its use of classical filmmaking techniques generally assures itself cult status, regardless of quality. However, from a technical standpoint, Mank is a pleasure to view and feels much like a lost work by Robert Siodmak or William Wyler. The result is a dense, smoke-filled atmosphere that would have likely been lost in a glossier technicolour presentation.

The set and costume design resists indulging the faux-glamour that many films portraying early twentieth Century Los Angeles often get caught up in. However, albeit a far cry from the polished monochromatic sheen of The Artist (2010) or the hyper-stylised cinematography of Ed Wood (1994), Mank does occasionally rely on the nostalgia factor to give life to some of the more dry areas of the plot. A good portion of the second act is dedicated to the gubernatorial election (the election of state governors) of 1934, and the contrived storyline is supported heavily by charismatic performances portraying Hollywood goliaths like Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore).

The only constant throughout the film is Mank himself. Oldman flawlessly sells the self-aware, intellectual-alcoholic role, and creates a protagonist that is almost too sympathetic – possibly even one-dimensional. Until the film’s climax, there is a scarcity of scenes that paint Mank in anything but a positive light. His alcoholism and excessive gambling are played off as inconsequential foibles of his care-free personality. Though, this does not cheapen Oldman’s performance. His platonic relationship with actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) is heart-warmingly genuine, and the lucid interactions between Mank and his wife Sara are both humorous and humbling.

Lily Collins’ arc is entirely uninteresting and underdeveloped, despite true accounts of the period billing her as key to the writing process…

The root cause of the film’s few, but major, shortfalls is Jack Fincher’s screenplay which casts an overly broad net. On paper, Mankiewicz appears to be the ideal vehicle for the journey through the most turbulent decade in Hollywood’s history, and indeed much of his story hinges on the backdrop of the corrupt studio system. However, the political subtext overshadows some of the developments in Mank’s own tale to a point of distraction.

Other more orthodox elements of the story also detract from the welcome rawness that Mank brings to an often superficial genre, namely the relationship between Mank and his nurse-come-assistant Rita (Lily Collins) in the 1940 strand of the story. Her role, although well performed, feels like a device used to dismiss any room for interpretation around Mank’s character. Her own arc is entirely uninteresting and underdeveloped, despite true accounts of the period billing her as key to the writing process. Although, even the least engaging scenes in the film are upheld by the sharp dialogue, often reminiscent of the great screwball comedies.

Despite a few over-long scenes and an at times questionable pacing, Mank is an entertaining and informative film that is clearly passionate about its source material, almost to a fault. It is essential viewing for film fans curious about the legend of the Hearst scandal that almost saw Citizen Kane wiped from history.

The final result is an anti-love letter to old Hollywood that celebrates the genius and rhetoric of an often-overlooked hero of film history.