- Movie Rating -

Mank (2020)

| December 8, 2020

It is very touching that David Fincher would want to be the director to helm a screenplay about Herman J. Mankiewicz that was written by his late father.  Jack Fincher (1932-2003) had written the bio-pic of legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz and it had been around Hollywood for many years because unfortunately the studios rejected it.  Given that history, who wouldn’t want to honor their late father in this way?  Who wouldn’t want to look up to Heaven and thank their old man from Oscar’s stage?

Given the finished product, however, I could probably understand why the studios passed.  I’m not being cruel, I’m being realistic.  Mank is a glorious physical recreation of Old Hollywood but it has a narrative drive that never finds its center.  The points of interest are there, the landscape of old Hollywood is there, but there’s something in this movie that rings hollow.  When I wasn’t being distracted by historical inaccuracy (the bit at the end with the Oscar is not true), I had trouble keeping up with the script’s radical shifts.  There are moments when you almost feel like you need Cliff Notes going in partly because there are so many players to keep up with and partly because the script leaves off bits of historical information that are crucial to our understanding of some of these people’s motivation.

I can criticize the writing all day, but I won’t say as much for the filmmaking.  This is a film of cinematic embellishment that only a talented director like David Fincher could bring to life.  This is a beautifully crafted production in every way, from Eric Messerschmidt gorgeous black and white cinematography to Donald Graham Burt’s lush recreation of Old Hollywood decadence to Kirk Baxter’s skillful editing, the film is picture perfect.

Central to the production is the world in which we find ourselves, the world of Hollywood’s fabled old guard, obscenely-rich immigrants who transplanted themselves to the edge of California’s sunbaked coast and built an empire where their fortunes allowed them to withstand the blistering maelstrom of the Great Depression.  And into this chaos comes Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), a writer whose drinking problem is so present that it is almost a walking stereotype.  We know from the outset that his task is to write what will echo in history as the greatest screenplay in film history, a multi-layered script called “The American” – you know it as Citizen Kane.  His inspirations are obvious, but the movie keeps getting distracted by other things that don’t really matter to the central point.

The tastiest treat about history of Citizen Kane was the battle between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst.  Hearst, of course, was such a powerful press lord that he could make or break anyone that he liked and that included an impudent upstart like Welles who dared criticize his life and his relationship with his girlfriend Marion Davies.  Hearst diverted all coverage of the film and made certain that it was rarely screened – plus he made certain that it was not advertised in his newspapers.  That story was covered brilliantly in the Oscar-nominated documentary The Battle Over Citizen Kane, and really might have made the tasty center to this film.  Unfortunately, it exists around the edges here, as another story for another time.

There is a lot of this film that seems like a story for another time.  I liked the relationship that develops between Mankiewicz and Marion Davies, played beautifully by Amanda Seyfried, but their story is another distraction.  What was the point?  One can see that her mere presence gives him the inspiration to create the sympathetic character of Susan Alexander.  Okay!  What of it?  That’s what I said throughout this picture.  Big deal.  Same thing in his dealings with John Houseman.  It’s a relationship that is half-drawn and undone by the film’s odd structure.

The better portions of the film deal with Mank’s dealings with the tycoons, in particular MGM overlord Louis B. Mayer (a cartoonish Arliss Howard) and Hearst himself (played by perfectly cast Charles Dance).  Mank may be an insufferable drunk, but there is something tasty in his dealings with these immoral lions who move mountains at their will and manipulate the world through P.R.  The problem is that it ties very loosely to the story of Kane.  We know what Hearst did to hurt the picture, but there’s nothing driving that part of the story.  It never quite sticks the landing.

There is a great movie here.  The pieces are in place.  The players are all here.  The cast is all here.  But when you get to the end, you never feel that you have a better understanding of Mank or the film that he helped to create.  This is a frustrating experience about a frustrating man, but it never comes together in any real way.

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.
(2020) View IMDB Filed in: Uncategorized