I went into Mank prepared to dislike it. It wound up winning me over with its style and story.
I have to admit, Mank was probably the last of the Oscar nominees I wanted to view, despite it being free on Netflix. As a story about golden age Hollywood, movie making, and the critically beloved movie Citizen Kane, I figured it was going to be one of those “Hollywood celebrates itself” movies like La La Land. Instead, it uses the aesthetics and techniques of Orson Welles’ celebrated film to tell a scathing story of corruption and plutocracy that smartly draws parallels between the 1940’s and today.
1930s Hollywood is reevaluated through the eyes of scathing wit and alcoholic screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) as he races to finish “Citizen Kane.”
The structure of Mank relies on recreating the style of 1940’s movie dramas, notably Citizen Kane, using screenwriting prompts in lieu of narration or inter-titles. It can feel a bit precious in the beginning, and the constant flashbacks and time transitions can sometimes throw you, but after about half an hour it begins to feel natural. It allows the film to callback to its inspiration without sacrificing too much narrative flow.
The film grain and cinematography hearken back to the golden age, to mostly positive effect. Again, certain conventions have become a bit cute or have fallen out of style, but it’s nice to revisit them with attention to authenticity. The film also does a nice job of recreating Hollywood in all its old glory, from sound stages and movie lots, to the boulevard, and the many posh locations on the periphery that catered to the elite.
Sour and Sweet.
Gary Oldman’s Mankiewicz is an irascible old bird, so the script wisely pairs him off against a nice cast of opposing personalities. His wit and fatalism help cut through the bluster of producers and handlers looking to butter up the talent, and takes the haughty barons of industry around him down a peg or two…or at least lets them know their power and money have not seduced everyone around them. To prevent the film from being too acerbic or self-involved, we see that those on his social level or slightly below are just as eager to call Mank out on his b.s. whenever he gets too full of himself.
The cast acquits itself nicely, though besides Mank they tend to come and go through the story. I especially liked that it was filled with strong female characters who all highlighted Mank’s blind spots, like his nurse played by Lily Collins and his long suffering wife played by Tuppence Middleton. Amanda Seyfried also stands out as a co-conspirator and eventual foil, playing the under-estimated mistress of Mank’s patron/antagonist, William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance.)
Just the Right Amount of Jaundice.
What eventually turned me on to Mank is that the script is just as biting as Mankiewicz himself. While ostensibly critiquing Hollywood and society in the pre-WW2 era, it draws plenty of obvious parallels to the current rising power of authoritarians, propagandists, unscrupulous titans of industry, and the complicit members of the media who enable them today. It’s not exactly subtle that the film concentrates on Hearst and MGM using “fake news” to smear a populist candidate challenging the GOP in California (a surprising cameo from Bill Nye as Upton Sinclair) via charges of “socialism” and “attacking our way of life.” It’s not subtle, but it’s very effective.
Leaves a Legacy.
It’s odd that the description for Mank I keep coming back to is effective, seeing as poor Mank himself was largely ineffective at confronting the rot and corruption around him. It’s really only posthumously that his scathing commentary was understood in context, long after most of the suck-ups and exploiters had gotten away with their agenda. Maybe it won’t take a generation for viewers to realize the dangerous similarities behind those times and our own, and mount a better defense against it.