Published on December 7th, 2020 | by Craig Silliphant0
David Fincher’s Mank will be a brilliant look at the writing of Citizen Kane for some, but an unholy bore for others. And that’s okay.
If you told me you didn’t connect with David Fincher’s new film Mank, I’d be okay with that. I wouldn’t accuse you of not liking a movie without superheroes or explosions, or condescendingly say that you just didn’t “get it.” Mank is going to be a divisive film, though not because of any controversy or anything like that. It’s just not for everyone.
One of the things that gives it hidden depths is the same thing that will alienate some viewers. That is to say, it doesn’t operate like a normal colour-by-numbers greatest hits mix tape like most recent biopics. It chooses to focus on a couple of key moments in time and explore those. But the flaw in this for some viewers will be that it doesn’t really slow down to explain who a lot of the players are, or their significance in the big picture of Hollywood in that era. You can glean some of that information from watching, of course, but the film seems to assume you know a lot about this story.
The story itself could loosely be described as the writing of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, one of the seminal movies in film history. But it’s really about Herman J. Mankiewicz (“with a z that shows up at the end for no reason,” to quote his wife). Mank, as he was known, was a brilliant writer who revolutionized Hollywood pictures in the talky era, long before he wrote Citizen Kane. He was also a maverick and an alcoholic, stifled by the Hollywood system as it started to change in the late 30s. The story bounces around in time, giving you some of his backstory and how he came to meet players like William Randolph Hearst, the man Citizen Kane was based on. It also looks at the time period where Mank was bedridden after a car accident, writing the movie itself.
Having been a pasty film nerd for over three decades, I’m well familiar with the story of how Citizen Kane was made and who all the old players were beyond that tale. A lot of people aren’t, and that’s okay. But I really think it is what will gauge your enjoyment of the film, for the most part. I don’t think this is a good thing — the story and the details you need to know should all be up there on the screen. You shouldn’t need a secret decoder ring to get the different levels that a film is working on.
But if we move beyond that for a moment, David Fincher’s Mank has some glorious depth and some deeply moving scenes. It would be easy to criticize Mank as Fincher has assembled it, in the same way John Houseman criticizes Mank’s early drafts of Citizen Kane. As a hodgepodge of scenes, jumping around all over the place. Mank replies something that Attenborough would echo in his film about Gandhi:
“No man’s life can be encompassed in one telling. There is no way to give each year its allotted weight, to include each event, each person who helped to shape a lifetime. What can be done is to be faithful in spirit to the record and try to find one’s way to the heart of the man….”
Mank starts out slowly and a bit too dryly, but picks up speed as it adds scenes to the quilt, finally pulling you in. And there are some brilliant scenes, like Irving Thalberg explaining politics to Mank, ever the rogue. Or Mank and Marion Davis discussing the film, each saying that they hope the other will forgive them if the film gets released, or doesn’t get released. Or Mank’s long suffering wife supporting him, but also begging him to think about those that love him when going off half-cocked.
Still setting aside our problem of being too ‘insy,’ the film is brilliantly crafted. Mank the movie is as witty as Mank the man. And like Citizen Kane, it is set apart by brilliant black and white photography, even using a lot of the old tricks (you can see the cigarette burns on the screen every once in a while, giving it the texture of the classic films of old). The acting is top notch; Gary Oldman is great as always and Amanda Seyfried and Lily Collins each steal a few scenes.
But all that said, while I thought Mank was one of the best biopics of recent memory, putting hot garbage like Bohemian Rhapsody to further shame, I still can’t give it that top shelf endorsement. It manages to get around the biopic clichés, while still hitting the big moments. But it also expects that the viewer knows more than they should have to in order for them to truly connect with the film. You shouldn’t have to have read a lot about Hearst, Mank, Kane, or even old Hollywood to enjoy the movie. As I said at the start, it should all be up there on the screen for you.
So, while I personally loved it and can’t wait to watch it again, no doubt getting more and more out of it with each viewing, I can completely understand if the movie left a different viewer cold. Though, knowing how much screen time it would have added to explain the context of everything, maybe there is something to be said for not trying to please all the people all of the time. Maybe there’s something to be said for different kinds of storytelling. Maybe it’s okay for me to love it, and for someone else to hate it, much like William Randolph Hearst or Herman J. Mankiewicz themselves.