Mank (2020)
Mank (2020)

Genre: Drama Running Time: 2 hrs. 11 min.

Release Date: December 4th, 2020 MPAA Rating: R

Director: David Fincher Actors: Gary Oldman, Lily Collins, Amanda Seyfried, Tom Pelphrey, Arliss Howard, Tuppence Middleton, Monika Grossmann, Joseph Cross, Sam Troughton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance

 


 

I

n 1940, a struggling RKO Pictures lured Orson Welles (Tom Burke) – at the tender age of 24 – into making a film of his choosing, with total freedom, including no restrictions on the subject matter or on his collaborators. He was even given final cut (the reasons for all of this, however, are left unsaid). And so, at a ranch in Victorville, the ailing writer Herman Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman) arrives, virtually confined to a bed with a broken leg, dependent on a nurse (Monika Grossmann) and positioned a little too far away from his case of booze to be truly comfortable. He’s given a mere 60 days to finish the first draft of a screenplay for Welles – 30 days less than what he was previously told. And liaison John Houseman (Sam Troughton) visits from time to time, chiefly providing nervousness over the odds of success.

After the brief setup, a flashback arrives, filling the audience in on Mank’s injuries and Welles’ synergistic interest. It’s monumentally unnecessary and bland; this structuring is just so disappointingly formulaic. Plus, it’s completely unnecessary; a couple of scenes later, the setting returns to his bedroom, where he dictates to typist Rita Alexander (Lily Collins). Nevertheless, it’s soon apparent that these flashbacks will continue, perhaps even composing the entirety of the picture. Swooping backwards in time to 1930, small, trivial details (such as Mank’s betting proclivities) begin to populate this biography, bringing a wealth of classic moviemakers and industry titans into the fold – ranging from David O. Selznick (Toby Leonard Moore) and Ben Hecht (Jeff Harms) and Irving Thalberg (Ferdinand Kinsley) to Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) and Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried) and William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance). Additionally, introductions arise for Mank’s wife Sara (Tuppence Middleton) and his brother Joseph (Tom Pelphrey).

“You’re asking a lot of a motion picture audience.” With jazzy, peppy music presiding over shooting sequences and meetings of executives, the film maintains a mostly lighthearted tone, failing to make any random, minor tragedy from posing much of a hiccup; even when Mank’s deadline rapidly approaches, or the significance of battling Hearst becomes clearer, there’s no tension or gravity. It also doesn’t help that the central character is rarely sympathetic, spending most of his time quietly complaining, hurling insults, or slurring his words from inebriation. That doesn’t prevent Oldman’s performance from being watchable, but this role is fairly standard and infrequently absorbing.

The notes on historical political episodes (which are strikingly timely) and soul-crushing corruption are slightly amusing, along with the educational lessons about studio inner workings and rivalries (sometimes all intermixed), but as this endeavor plays out, it feels more and more like a vanity project made foremost for director David Fincher – any other viewership be damned. And it’s quite likely that film buffs will be the only ones to seek it out, particularly with its premise, its lengthy running time, and its unhurried pacing. Its scope and its attention to details are admirable, but too broad; it’s far more of a comprehensive biography on Mankiewicz than a revealing insight on the making of “Citizen Kane” – yet another sign of Fincher dispensing with a more sellable angle in favor of his own interests.

Curiously, the abundance of character development (and characters, a few of which are totally extraneous) doesn’t often shed light on specifics about “Citizen Kane” itself, which means that audiences will have to bring their own knowledge with them in order to understand various comments and jokes and actions (this goes doubly for the political subplots, which elucidate little about the power players and the consequences of their machinations; by the end, viewers likely won’t even have any idea who Hearst was). As it turns out, “Mank” isn’t much of a history lesson or a film history lesson, plodding along with only the bits of information that Fincher wishes to dramatize, leaving a story so full of holes that few could possibly understand the implications of the contentious interactions and negotiations. It glosses over such colossal pieces of the filmmaking process that it ends up feeling as if the central production is largely irrelevant; it’s just another venture that contributed to Mank’s career. However, its failure to tell anything close to a complete story does succeed in encouraging viewers to re-watch “Citizen Kane” – or perhaps merely mustering regret for watching this biography rather than simply seeing the 1941 masterpiece (for the first time or again for the umpteenth time).

– Mike Massie

  • 2/10