Review: Mank

Year: 2020
Duration: 131 minutes
Director: David Fincher
Writer: Jack Fincher
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Charles Dance

By Caz Armstrong

As a gorgeous, if, slightly complicated ode to 30s Hollywood, David Fincher’s latest is not so much thrilling, as we might expect from him, but more intriguing.

Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) is a gambling-addicted drunk with a broken leg hired to write “Citizen Kane”, which he must do from his sick bed. His deadline gets shortened and his output is woefully slow as it is either helped or hindered by illicit alcohol. Through flashbacks to the previous decade, we see his rise through the ranks of Hollywood along with the politics and power plays that underpin the industry. He makes allies and enemies throughout the 1930s as recession and political change overshadow both the country and the industry.

As we all know he did manage to write the screenplay and ultimately won an Oscar for it in 1942, along with Orson Welles. But perhaps fewer of us knew about the battle for credit and the infighting and manoeuvring that went on behind the scenes.

Despite the premise, the main focus is not so much on the act of writing, but on the power of the film industry and the political tactics required to get ahead.

Those who are very familiar with Hollywood’s history will certainly get a lot more out of this film than the layperson approaching it with fresh eyes. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, variously referred to by their first name or surname, making it harder to follow for the uninitiated. On top of that there are grievances and manoeuvres that span a decade to keep track of.

It comes off as a bit of a nudge and wink to the audience who won’t necessarily get the inside joke. Those in the know will find it a wonderful and sentimental love song to a Hollywood gone by. They’ll feel good about knowing each writer, producer or bigwig mentioned; Louis B Mayer, Irving Thalberg, William Randolph Hearst et al.

Those who aren’t in the know are left out of the insider’s club with the distinct impression that others are pointing at their screens at that moment like a Leo DiCaprio meme. We can tell that certain people are a big deal but it doesn’t tell us why. So without the required level pre-knowledge they won’t understand the weight of many interactions or the implications of various allegiances. It is difficult to follow and the story itself is not gripping enough to make up for it.

The score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross includes some beautiful orchestral pieces as well as big band jazz. The meticulous recreation of the look and style of the films of the 1930s and 40s makes it a beautiful thing to watch. High contrast black and white cinematography, complete with cue marks and typed scene headings are a love poem to filmmaking and an era gone by. Glamorous people in glamorous clothes smoke fat cigars at parties while making barbed comments about each other.

But it was all precariously fleeting, and even our protagonist didn’t exactly have a glamorous life for the main part. On the other side of the coin are the scores of nameless people just trying to make enough money to live on. We get a glimpse of the disposable people who got screwed over and spat out by the studios.  

One of the more interesting themes is around the amount of influence that the media has over those who consume it. It’s clearly stated that people will believe anything they see on screen. Taken a step further, to sell out and create a faked propaganda film can have very real and consequences on the consumer and the conscience of the creator. It’s up to the personal conscience of those involved to make choices that are best not only for their career but for society at large. This takes on a special meaning when you consider the real new accused of being fake, and the unsubstantiated lies we have seen dressed up as fact in recent years.

While incredibly reverent towards the Hollywood of the 1930s and 40s, “Mank” does show the underbelly of the industry. It’s cut-throat and only the most calculating can get to the top while others suffer. Visually it’s gorgeous but the way the story is told is likely to divide audiences. While the super-fans can pat themselves on the back and enjoy seeing Hollywood heavyweights brought to life (and I don’t begrudge them that joy), the casual viewer doesn’t get thrown enough of a bone to be able to appreciate it.


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