Tuesday, February 20, 2024

Oscar Film Journal: Mank (2020)

The Oscars are only a few weeks away, so let's revisit a recent Best Picture nominee in this installment of the Oscar Film Journal!

I've seen this film a few times now and it's paradoxically both immersive and emotionally distant, it's David Fincher's Mank, starring Gary Oldman as infamous screenwriter Herman Mankiewicz, the man who co-wrote Citizen Kane.  Jumping back and forth between Mank's 1930s heyday and his early 1940s exile, this unusual biopic tackles his self-destructive alcoholism, his touchingly sweet friendship with actress Marion Davies, his tangental involvement in the Upton Sinclair gubernatorial election bid, and his alienation of newspaper magnate William Randloph Hearst via the Kane script.

Recovering from a car crash at a southern California ranch and accompanied only by his secretary, Mank is recruited by Orson Welles (Tom Burke, doing maybe the best Welles impression I've heard) to pen the script for his debut feature film, for which Welles was famously given creative carte blanche (the only time the studio would ever entrust the young iconoclast with such control).  Deprived of alcohol by the ranch owner's "dry house" policy, Mank suffers writer's block until having booze smuggled into the house.  From here his script comes together quickly, a scathing indictment of Hearst that threatens to ruin Mank's career if the film is allowed to be made.  
Complicating things is the fact that Hearst himself enjoys Mank's company, having entertained him as a guest many times at Hearst Castle in San Simeon, where Mank and Hearst's girlfriend Marion Davies had grown quite close over the years.  Davies herself tries to talk Mank out of submitting the screenplay, as does Mank's younger brother Joseph, but Kane did indeed get made and both Mank and Welles would suffer the backlash from it, despite co-winning the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

The film is shot in lovely, creamy black and white, winning a well-deserved Best Cinematography statue, and the score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is shockingly period-appropriate, both adding immensely to the film's immersiveness.  As with a few of Welles' films I'm so fascinated by how Mank was directed, photographed and scored the story almost becomes secondary to the way in which it's told.

As a biopic Mank keeps us at arm's length; the closest we get to any kind of sentimentality is during his playful scenes with Davies (a splendid, pixie-like Amanda Seyfried).  Herman was an old soul with a sharp wit, the life of the party, until his addictive personality got the better of him and he became someone to be pitied - a scene late in the film depicts a drunken Mank revealing to Hearst and friends his intention to write a film about him, a tirade that gets him permanently ousted from Hearst's circle.

The film is almost more about showing the ugly side of Old Hollywood; MGM head Louis B. Mayer crows about how even after a ticket buyer pays to see a film, it "still belongs to the man who sold it - that's the real magic of the movies."  Right after this moment Mayer asks his entire staff to take a 50% pay cut so the studio can stay afloat during the Depression.  When asked if that includes his pay, he obfuscates of course.  The studio also creates anti-Sinclair propaganda reels to get Frank Merriam elected and preserve their unchecked capitalism, a theme still relevant 90 years later.  For all the nostalgia we usually associate with Hollywood's golden age, this film does not share in it.

But how do I actually feel about Mank?  It's hard to say exactly.  As a fan of Fincher, Oldman, Welles, and film noir I found Mank quite engrossing on an intellectual and experiential level.  It's beautifully shot, well-acted and snappily written.  It's also a bit cold and aloof, and perhaps a little unkind to Welles, who is depicted here throwing a violent tantrum when Mank asks for writing credit on Kane (no such episode ever happened in real life; Mank was granted credit without much pushback from Orson, and Orson also earned his own writing credit on the film, contrary to what Pauline Kael claimed).  But overall Mank is another big win for Fincher and co., and a fascinating look at this troubled figure and the era he occupied.

I give Mank ***1/2 out of ****.

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