Photo | “Mank” – Netflix
Leading the Oscar nominations this year is David Fincher’s “Mank,” a black-and-white journey into the writing of “Citizen Kane,” specifically the process of screenwriter Herman “Mank” Mankiewicz. Hired as an uncredited ghostwriter under the legendary Orson Welles and laid up with a broken leg, the prickly, alcoholic Mank, played by Oscar-nominated Gary Oldman, churns out the nonlinear script that eventually wins him an Oscar.
Since Charles Foster Kane, the subject of “Citizen Kane,” was overtly based on William Randolph Hearst, a contemporary and personal friend of Mank, the writer wrestled with how much to put on screen. And he was begged not to do so by Hearst’s girlfriend, Marion Davies, portrayed by Oscar-nominated Amanda Seyfried, in some of the film’s more compelling scenes.
If this topic strikes you as slightly niche, you’re not wrong. An appreciation for the resemblance between Louis B. Mayer, the second “M” in MGM, and the actor deftly portraying him (Arliss Howard) is not required for you to enjoy “Mank,” but it helps. Similarly, how invested are you in the California gubernatorial race that was lost by Upton Sinclair after media manipulations by Mayer and Hearst? Do you care how personally disillusioned Mank was by that turn of events?
All of the characters are great, whether you know about their real-life counterparts or not. The always-malevolent Charles Dance, who I think will never portray a milkman or other down-to-earth type, simmers as Hearst. Of course, Oldman is great as a witty, self-loathing writer, and he actually turns in a performance that is fairly subdued on the Oldman “scream” scale. Seyfried plays a blonde actress who was perceived as a ditzy blonde and might qualify herself as such an actress, but she brought a lot of understanding to her role. I actually thought she was the most fully realized, emotionally recognizable person up there.
I guess it’s not too surprising people involved with making movies love a movie about people involved with making movies. And “Mank” is visually invested in classic cinematic details from fake dots added to indicate it’s time to change the film roll (a nod to “Fight Club”) to superimposed script cues like EXT. -HOLLYWOOD.-1930. Those cues also help orient the viewer since the film flips back and forth through flashbacks, much like “Citizen Kane” does. The heady Hollywood screenwriting scenes are the most fun, while we slowly learn more about Hearst and Mank through a series of encounters at Hearst’s famed mansion.
While most of the scenes I’m recalling were interesting, exciting and well-acted, the overall impact of “Mank” was not that significant. It’s worth watching, but does it succeed as the “Best” film of the year? None of the contenders I have seen so far have been better than the film I am shocked was not nominated, “Da 5 Bloods.” It’s inconceivable this Spike Lee movie was shut out, particularly Delroy Lindo for Best Actor. I cannot help but hold the nominees against that standard as I continue to work my way through them leading up to the awards in April.
So how does “Mank” rank? Movie buffs should definitely see it. And while they’re at it, they definitely shouldn’t refer to themselves as movie buffs. It is a handsomely made historical biopic, and if you like those, you know it can get a wee bit dull at times. The overarching drama was a bit muted for me. When Orson Welles confronted Mank on screenwriting credits and they both flipped out, I didn’t even realize this was the main struggle I had been watching for almost two hours.
The scenes and individual performances stood out more than the movie for me. So, I suppose that means I would be OK with Seyfried or Oldman winning. Plus the beautifully named Erik Messerschmidt for Cinematography and all the technical ones like Costume Design and Production Design. However, I cannot bestow my coveted endorsement on David Fincher for Best Director and I don’t think all the outstanding individual elements added up to the Best Picture of the Year.
“Mank” is now streaming on Netflix.
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