We’re entering what would normally be the end-of-the-year Oscar season (though films that come out until Feb. 28., 2021, are going to be eligible for consideration, so January and February might not be as barren as usual), so a biopic about filmmaking that has an infatuation with old Hollywood like David Fincher’s “Mank” makes sense.
“Mank”, whose screenplay was written by Fincher’s late father, Jack, focuses on Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), who wrote the script for “Citizen Kane.” Mankiewicz, or Mank, is a former Hollywood insider who used to work for the likes of Paramount and MGM, who was once close to MGM co-founder Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (Charles Dance), and Heart’s mistress and actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried). Mank teams up with young upstart director Orson Welles (Tom Burke) and RKO Pictures to produce the movie, which his friends and families advise him against making in the interest of self-preservation, given that Kane is a thinly-veiled film about Hearst and Davies that is very critical of them.
Oldman is both comedic and elegant as Mank, who is a heavy drinker and gambler who has a fantastic command of the English language, is well read, and just says the most profound things about the social climate and major figures of his time effortlessly. He’s also treated as somewhat of a court jester for his powerful friends in Mayer and Hearst, and he has a legitimately good friendship with Davies, who probably has the second best performance in the film, though it’s really only profound if you’re familiar with the “Citizen Kane” character that’s based off her.
The same sentiment can be applied to the whole of the film; If you haven’t seen “Citizen Kane,” you’ll find it’s an endearing character-study of one of Hollywood’s tragic geniuses, that is as infatuated with itself as it is with the movie industry of the time, but you won’t get much more from it than that. If you have seen “Citizen Kane”, it recontextualizes that film, and attempts to add profound meaning to what Mank was trying to accomplish with it, wholly ignoring its troubled production, and downplaying Welles’ involvement with the film, focusing directly on Mank, who the film accredits to creating Kane’s blueprint. While I think “Mank” has enough going for it to work as its own standalone thing, you’re certainly not getting the whole experience if you haven’t seen “Citizen Kane.”
Like Kane, “Mank” meanders, slowly telling us Mank’s backstory during the Great Depression-era Hollywood, in which he developed relationships with Mayer, Hearst and Davies, of which only Davies is redeemable, if not a little naïve. We also see Mank’s relationship with his brother, Joe (Tom Pelphrey), who has a lot of the same wits as Mank, albeit Joe prefers to play it safer than his brother. The film is presented in black and white, and its transitions and editing mimic Kane stylistically, though it never truly feels like a film from the period; it feels more like a modern film trying on an old coat.
Overall, “Mank” is a decent supplemental piece to “Citizen Kane” that flirts with the prospects of telling a classic tale in its own right, but it falls a little short. Oldman, Howard, Dance and Seyfried all have remarkable performances, but I’m not sure if they’re Oscar-worthy.
Still, if you’re familiar with “Citizen Kane” or old Hollywood, you’ll get some enjoyment out of this. It’s nowhere near as good as last year’s “Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood”, that explored old Hollywood much better, but it’s still two hours well spent.
“Mank” gets an 8/10