Review by Katie Lynch
Mank (David Fincher, 2020) is a story of political disillusionment framed by Herman Mankiewicz’s experiences and perspectives. It emulates the non-linear timeline of Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) showing Mank writing the screenplay for Kane, and is punctuated by significant events from his past which we are led to believe inspired much of the famous story.
If, like me, you heard about Mank and thought, “Oh, sweet! A fun movie about classic Hollywood and the making of one of the most important movies of all time!”, you will be sorely disappointed. Mank is not fun. Alternatively, if you expected Mank to be a look at the relationship between Mankiewicz and Welles and the famous debate over who deserves credit for writing Citizen Kane, then readjust your expectations. The filmmakers have evidently decided upon the issue for themselves with little comment.
But let’s judge Mank for what it’s trying to present to us: a heady examination of 1930s politics in Hollywood and beyond, seen through the eyes of an alcoholic and gambling addict who also happened to write the screenplay for one of the most influential films of all time. Now that our lenses are adjusted, we can unpack why Mank didn’t work.
Yes, it looks great. Fincher certainly made use of classic film techniques, including camera movement, sound recording and acting style, not to mention his favourite little “cigarette burns”. However, it captures none of classic Hollywood cinema’s charm or glamour, with the exception of the fleeting moments when Amanda Seyfried or Charles Dance grace the screen.
Most glaringly, Gary Oldman was a bizarre choice for the titular role. At 62, he’s too old to be playing the 43 year old Mank, and it’s hard to watch him labour through it knowing what he can do given the right part. When he’s not slowly slurring out a self-indulgent, poorly-timed speech about his capitalist contemporaries, he tries to bring a drunken charm to the role, but it all falls a bit flat. Mank doesn’t offer much in the way of character development or human emotion – even scenes which are supposed to be emotionally hard-hitting, like the sudden death of a certain character, leave the audience feeling ambivalent – and Oldman’s performance pulls it down further so we have to drag our feet through it to get to the end.
Citizen Kane was a radical story never before seen, told in a groundbreaking way. It was innovative, exhilarating and never boring – a story worth telling and a character worth examining at the time – which is far more than I can say for Mank in the year 2020. This film feels like it should be important, but ultimately it leaves the viewer wondering why they just spent two hours watching a film about a rude man who wrote a noble screenplay. Sure was a good screenplay, though.